[UPDATED] FCC Permits Online Contest Disclosures
[UPDATE: The FCC just released its Report and Order defining the requirements for stations wishing to meet their contest disclosure obligations by posting their contest rules online. The revised FCC rule requires a licensee to (i) broadcast the relevant website address periodically with information making it easy for a consumer to find the material contest terms online; (ii) establish a link or tab to material contest terms on the website’s home page; (iii) maintain contest terms online for a minimum of thirty days after the contest ends; and (iv) where applicable, within 24 hours of a material change in contest rules (and periodically thereafter), announce that the material terms have changed and direct participants to the website to see the changes.
The FCC also noted that the “relevant website” for posting rules should be the station’s or licensee’s website or, if there is no station or licensee website, then any other website that is “designed to be accessible to the public 24/7, for free, and without any registration requirement.”
In the Report and Order, the FCC agreed with commenters that a literal interpretation of the “complete and direct” website announcement requirement would be unduly burdensome for broadcasters and confusing to the public. It therefore concluded that broadcasters could satisfy the requirement by identifying the relevant address “through simple instructions or natural language (e.g., ‘for contest rules go to kxyz.com and then click on the contest tab’).”
The Report and Order did not, however, shine any light on how frequently a broadcaster must announce the web address. Instead, the FCC decided that “the public interest would be better served by providing licensees with flexibility to determine the frequency with which they broadcast the website address where contest terms are made available to the public.” The FCC cautioned, however, that if it finds “that licensees are failing to broadcast the website address with adequate frequency,” the Commission will revisit the issue in the future.]
[EARLIER POST BELOW]
As we wrote last month, the agenda for the FCC’s September open meeting included consideration of its proposal to modernize the 40-year-old broadcast contest rule. Today, after more than three and a half years of (unopposed) anticipation, the FCC adopted rules that “allow broadcasters to disclose contest rules online as an alternative to broadcasting them over the air.”
As the FCC has not released the text of its decision yet, the precise form of disclosure that will be required is not fully known. However, it appears the FCC did hear the suggestions made by numerous commenters regarding how often a station must air the web address for contest rules. The FCC’s original proposal would have required that the online location of the full contest rules be mentioned every time the contest itself is mentioned. Numerous parties complained that such an approach would clutter the airwaves with repetitive mentions of the website address where the rules could be found, and would be of little use to a public well-attuned to finding information on the Internet.
Today’s Public Notice hints that less frequent website mentions will be adequate, stating that broadcasters will be required only to “periodically announce over the air the website address where their contest rules can be found.” Once the text of the rules is released, broadcasters will learn if the FCC has provided any guidance as to how often a “periodic” announcement must run.
Also left open until the text of today’s decision arrives is the issue of whether the FCC will stick with its original proposal that “the complete and direct” website address (e.g., “http://www.WXYZ.com/contest123/rules”) be aired, or if broadcasters will instead be allowed to use a shorter web address, such as the station’s main website, where a link to the contest rules can be found. In either case, we would expect the FCC will require that a link to the contest rules be featured prominently on a station’s website.
While today’s action still permits broadcast stations to comply with the rules by airing the material terms of a contest on-air, it opens up an additional option that many stations will prefer to use, if for no other reason than to put an end to debates at the FCC about whether what a station aired constituted the “material terms” of a contest’s rules. That has been a major subject of FCC enforcement decisions related to station-conducted contests, and one that should go away if the station has posted the full contest rules online. As a result, the main focus of any FCC investigation involving a station contest will likely be limited to whether the station followed its published rules in conducting its contest. That is a far more objective question, and should eliminate some of the risk that has been inherent in running a station contest for the past 40 years.