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December 2015

Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others. This month’s issue includes:

  • FM Licensee and Prospective Buyer Agree to Jointly Pay $8,000 for Unauthorized Transfer of Control
  • TV Licensee Faces $13,000 Fine for Children’s Programming and Public Inspection File Violations
  • Late License Renewal Applicant Escapes With $1,500 Fine

Licensee Admits Time Brokerage Agreement Improperly Ceded Control of Station

The FCC’s Media Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with a Colorado FM broadcast licensee and a company seeking to acquire the station. The decree resolved an investigation into whether the licensee violated the FCC’s Rules by ceding control of key station responsibilities to a company through a Time Brokerage Agreement (“TBA”).

Section 310(d) of the Communications Act and Section 73.3540 of the FCC’s Rules prohibit voluntary assignments or transfers of control of broadcast licenses without the consent of the FCC. The Consent Decree noted that TBAs are not precluded by any FCC rule or policy, provided that licensees remain in compliance with the ownership rules and maintain ultimate control over their facilities. The Consent Decree explained that a licensee maintains such control when it holds ultimate responsibility for essential station matters such as programming, personnel, and finances.

The licensee and company entered into a TBA in 1992, and in 2006 the company assigned its rights under the agreement to an affiliated corporate entity. On April 23, 2015, the licensee and company jointly filed an application to assign the station’s license to the company, initiating the FCC’s investigation into the TBA.

The FCC concluded that the TBA effected an unauthorized transfer of control of the station license. Specifically, the TBA improperly delegated core licensee financial responsibilities by allowing an affiliated corporate entity of the broker to directly pay for certain station obligations and expenses, including a debt owed to a third party, site rent, and the bill for the station’s telephone service.

To resolve the investigation, the licensee and the company stipulated that they had each violated Section 310(d) of the Communications Act and Section 73.3540 of the FCC’s Rules, and agreed to collectively pay an $8,000 fine. In exchange, the FCC indicated it would grant the assignment application subject to full and timely payment of the fine and the absence of any other violations that would preclude such a grant.

FCC Proposes $13,000 Fine for Children’s Programming and Public Inspection File Violations

The FCC’s Media Bureau proposed a $13,000 fine for a Texas TV station for failing to properly identify children’s programming with an “E/I” symbol onscreen, and for several public inspection file violations. Additionally, the FCC admonished the licensee for its failure to upload required documents to the online public inspection file.

The Children’s Television Act requires TV stations to offer programming that meets the educational and informational needs of children, which the FCC calls “Core Programming.” Section 73.671 of the FCC’s Rules requires licensees to, among other things, display an “E/I” symbol to identify such content. Continue reading →

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In a decision long awaited by webcasters, the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) has released its new webcasting royalty rates.  These royalties are paid by non-interactive streaming services on which listeners cannot choose the specific songs they listen to, such as Pandora and radio stations that stream their programming.  The royalties are paid to SoundExchange, a performing rights organization which collects the payments on behalf of record labels and other holders of copyrights in sound recordings.  Services such as Spotify and Apple Music, which allow listeners to choose individual songs to listen to, negotiate licensing arrangements privately with record labels and are not affected by these rates.  The new rates will become effective on January 1, 2016 and will remain in effect until December 31, 2020.

Under the new rate structure, subscription services will pay 22 cents per hundred performances streamed in 2016, with an adjustment based on the Consumer Price Index for subsequent years through 2020. Non-subscription services such as broadcast radio stations will pay 17 cents per hundred performances streamed (with the same CPI adjustment).

For commercial radio stations, the 17 cent rate is a substantial decrease from the 25 cent streaming rate currently paid.  In contrast, pure play (non-broadcast) non-subscription streaming services saw their royalty increase from 14 cents per hundred performances to the new 17 cent rate.  Pandora had argued for a new rate equal to the greater of (i) 11 cents per hundred performances and (ii) 25% of the webcaster’s revenues, while the National Association of Broadcasters and iHeart Media had argued for a rate of 5 cents per hundred performances.  SoundExchange, on the other hand, had proposed a rate for commercial webcasters equal to the greater of (i) 25-29 cents per hundred performances, and (ii) 55% of the webcaster’s revenues.  A “performance” generally consists of the delivery of a song to a single device such as a smartphone.

The royalties are paid for a statutory license allowing webcasters to perform the song by delivering it to listeners’ devices, and to make any ephemeral copies of the song necessary for the streaming process. The CRB is required by statute to adjust royalty rates every five years based on rates which hypothetically would prevail in an open market free from government intervention.

The higher rates will make it tougher for pure play webcasters to make a profit, but Pandora CEO Brian McAndrews focused on the bright side, saying: “This decision provides much–needed certainty for both Pandora and the music industry.”  While pure play webcasters obviously were hoping that their streaming rates would go down, having the new rates at least sets a benchmark against which they can seek to negotiate private deals with record labels.

The National Association of Broadcasters applauded the new rates, with NAB Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton stating that the NAB was “pleased that streaming rates have begun to move in the right direction.”  SoundExchange, on the other hand, announced that “it is deeply disappointing to see that [terrestrial] broadcasters are being given another unfair advantage.”  Webcasters had argued that the rates set in the previous rate-setting proceeding were artificially high and were based on a flawed analysis, including the use of rates paid by interactive services as a basis for setting rates for non-interactive services.  SoundExchange asserted that interactive and non-interactive services were “converging,” and that higher rates were necessary to adequately compensate performers and copyright owners.

The precise reasoning behind the CRB’s decision will not be publically available until after the parties to the proceeding have had an opportunity to review the CRB’s written opinion to determine whether any confidential information should be redacted before it is released to the public.  While the parties will have the right to petition the CRB for reconsideration, and to appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals, such appeals generally are an uphill battle.  As a result, webcasters and record labels are likely to have to live with the result of today’s decision for the next five years.