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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:

Headlines:

  • FCC Proposes $20,000 Fine for Decade-Old EEO Violations
  • FCC Goes After Small North Carolina Radio Station for Absence During Inspection
  • Drone Company Agrees to $180,000 Settlement for Non-Compliant A/V Equipment

“Hire” Education: FCC Pursues South Carolina Radio Stations for EEO Violations

The FCC proposed a $20,000 fine against the operator of five radio stations near Myrtle Beach for allegedly failing to observe the Commission’s Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) recruitment rules from 2008 through 2010.

The stated goal of the FCC’s EEO Rule is to promote equal access to employment opportunities in the communications industry while deterring discrimination in the hiring process.  Pursuant to the EEO Rule, the FCC requires broadcast stations to follow certain procedures before filling each full-time vacancy.  Among other things, the EEO Rule requires stations to use outside recruitment sources to publicize vacancies, notify interested third party referral sources of vacancies, and generate and retain in-depth recruitment reports.

This particular inquiry began in 2011 when the FCC randomly selected the stations’ employment unit for an EEO audit.  The audit revealed several alleged violations surrounding eleven vacancies over the preceding two-year period.  The FCC found that the licensee had either used no recruitment sources or only word-of-mouth when it recruited for six of the eleven vacancies.  Further, the licensee allegedly failed to contact a third party that had previously requested notification of full-time vacancies.

In addition, the FCC asserted that the licensee failed to keep adequate records of the number of interviewees or the referral source of most of the interviewees during that period.  As a result, this information was missing from both the licensee’s Annual EEO Public File Reports and its public inspection file.  The FCC concluded that this meant the licensee could not adequately “analyze its recruitment program … to ensure that it is effective…” as Section 73.2080(c)(3) of the FCC’s Rules requires.

As a result, the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”) proposing to fine the stations.  While Section 503(b)(1)(B) of the Communications Act authorizes the FCC to penalize any person who violates the Act or the FCC’s Rules, neither the FCC’s Rules nor its forfeiture guidelines establish a base fine amount for specific EEO violations.  Instead, the FCC characterized the asserted violations as a “failure to maintain required records,” for which the forfeiture guidelines recommend a base fine of $1,000.  The FCC applied this fine to each of the six alleged violations of its recruitment rule and proposed an additional $2,000 fine for each of the other claimed EEO violations.  The FCC then added a $4,000 upward adjustment based on the licensee’s history of similar EEO violations at other owned stations, resulting in a total proposed fine of $20,000.

The NAL also proposed a reporting requirement under which the stations would need to report their recruitment and EEO activities directly to the FCC’s Media Bureau for each of the next three years.

Of particular interest to stations assessing their own EEO compliance, the licensee’s 2008-09 and 2009-10 recruitment reports indicated that the stations had lost much of their recruitment data to “unauthorized removal.” Specifically, the licensee subsequently reported that some of the records disappeared following the dismissal of the stations’ local business manager.  That explanation did not satisfy the FCC, which noted that the licensee’s loss of records “does not excuse it from having violated [the FCC’s] rules.”

This action is another reminder of the FCC’s strict enforcement of its EEO Rule.  Stations needing a refresher on these requirements should check out our EEO Advisory for more information, and our 2018 Broadcasters’ Calendar for important EEO-related deadlines coming up in the next year.

Out to Lunch: AM Broadcaster Notified of Station Inspection Violation

The Commission presented a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to a small North Carolina broadcaster for failing to staff its station during lunch hour one day this past March.  In the same action, the FCC observed that the station was also transmitting from an antenna for which it was not licensed. Continue reading →

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Each year around this time, Pillsbury’s Communications Practice releases its Broadcasters’ Calendar for the upcoming year.  It may not be the perfect stocking stuffer, but broadcasters that don’t read it closely are much more likely to end up on the FCC’s Naughty List next year.  When I’m on the road visiting stations or speaking at broadcaster conventions, it’s fairly common that someone walks up to me and tells me how much they appreciate the Broadcasters’ Calendar.  Rarely do calendars without pictures attract such attention.

I cannot take credit for the calendar, however.  The current communications lawyers at Pillsbury are merely the stewards of this publication.  When I joined the firm 30 years ago, the Broadcasters’ Calendar was already a well-established annual publication.  I honestly don’t know when the first Broadcasters’ Calendar was published, but I suspect there are editions floating around out there announcing deadlines relating to the launch of FM radio and color television.

And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Broadcasters’ Calendar is blushing.  Clients have sent me bootlegs in which someone has lifted the content wholesale and just put it on their own letterhead.  For a number of years I entertained myself by incorporating unusual words into the calendar just to see who was copying it outright rather than merely happening to describe a particular deadline the same way.

But it’s not hard to understand why the Pillsbury Broadcasters’ Calendar has developed such a following.  It outlines numerous regulatory and other deadlines broadcasters face in the coming year, along with brief descriptions of what complying with a particular deadline requires.

Despite the advent of a deregulatory FCC, the 2018 edition of the Broadcasters’ Calendar contains a fairly hefty number of entries, including dates and deadlines for TV’s upcoming spectrum repack and the conclusion of radio’s migration to an online public inspection file.  Fortunately, the 2018 edition also notes some filing deadlines that the FCC is actively considering eliminating.  Here’s hoping that the 2019 edition will be significantly thinner.

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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:

Headlines:

  • FCC Fires Broadside at Pirate Stronghold: Nearly Half of November Pirate Radio Notices Go to NY/NJ/CT Area
  • Sorry About That: Wireless Broadband Manufacturer Pays $95,000 to End Investigation of Failure to Prevent Harmful Manipulation of Its Products
  • Not Too Bright: FCC Proposes $25,000 Fine for Marketing Unlabeled Fluorescent Lights

No Parlay for Pirates: FCC Turns Up the Heat on Dozens of Alleged Pirate Radio Operators

In its most recent salvo against pirate radio operators, FCC field agents issued dozens of Notices of Violation (“NOV”) or Notices of Unauthorized Operation (“NOUO”) against alleged operators of unlicensed radio stations, particularly in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Under Section 301 of the Communications Act, transmission of radio signals without FCC authorization is prohibited. Unlicensed radio operators risk seizure of their equipment, heavy fines, and criminal sanctions issued for Connecticut pirate radio operations.

On just two consecutive days in October, agents from the New York field office investigated no fewer than eight pirate radio operations in New York and New Jersey, and the past month saw half a dozen NOUOs issued for Connecticut pirate radio operations.

In a similar show of force to the south, the FCC warned a dozen Florida residents of potential violations. The FCC also handed out a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NAL”) to an alleged California pirate, proposing a $15,000 fine.

For many years, broadcasters complained bitterly about both the interference from multiplying pirate stations and the FCC’s glacial response to these illegal operations. Too often, the FCC’s response was to shrug its bureaucratic shoulders and note that it had limited resources. Broadcasters thus became even more disheartened when the FCC greatly reduced its field offices and staffing in 2016, making it harder for FCC personnel to quickly reach and investigate pirate operations, even if given authority to do so.

Fortunately, Commissioner O’Rielly took up the cause early in his tenure at the FCC, and under Chairman Pai, the FCC has made prosecution of unauthorized radio operations a priority. While broadcasters are certainly appreciative of the change, the sudden uptick in enforcement actions by a reduced number of field offices and agents has made clear that it was never a matter of resources, but of regulatory will. If you want to hunt pirates, you have to leave port.

Consent Decree Ends FCC Investigation Into Company’s Modifiable Wireless Broadband Devices

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with a wireless device manufacturer after investigating whether the company violated various rules pertaining to the authorization and marketing of devices that emit radio frequency (“RF”) radiation.

In particular, the FCC looked into the manufacturer’s U-NII (Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure) devices. These devices are commonly used for Wi-Fi and other broadband access technology. However, U-NII devices that operate in the 5 GHz radio band risk interfering with certain weather radar systems. As a result, the FCC regulates how manufacturers make these devices available to the public. Continue reading →

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This Broadcast Station Advisory is directed to radio and television stations in the areas noted above, and highlights the upcoming deadlines for compliance with the FCC’s EEO Rule.

December 1, 2017 is the deadline for broadcast stations licensed to communities in Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont to place their Annual EEO Public File Report in their public inspection file and post the report on their station website. In addition, certain of these stations, as detailed below, must electronically file their EEO Mid-term Report on FCC Form 397 by December 1, 2017.

Under the FCC’s EEO Rule, all radio and television station employment units (“SEUs”), regardless of staff size, must afford equal opportunity to all qualified persons and practice nondiscrimination in employment.

In addition, those SEUs with five or more full-time employees (“Nonexempt SEUs”) must also comply with the FCC’s three-prong outreach requirements. Specifically, Nonexempt SEUs must (i) broadly and inclusively disseminate information about every full-time job opening, except in exigent circumstances, (ii) send notifications of full-time job vacancies to referral organizations that have requested such notification, and (iii) earn a certain minimum number of EEO credits, based on participation in various non-vacancy-specific outreach initiatives (“Menu Options”) suggested by the FCC, during each of the two-year segments (four segments total) that comprise a station’s eight-year license term. These Menu Option initiatives include, for example, sponsoring job fairs, participating in job fairs, and having an internship program.

Nonexempt SEUs must prepare and place their Annual EEO Public File Report in the public inspection files and on the websites of all stations comprising the SEU (if they have a website) by the anniversary date of the filing deadline for that station’s license renewal application. The Annual EEO Public File Report summarizes the SEU’s EEO activities during the previous 12 months, and the licensee must maintain adequate records to document those activities. Nonexempt SEUs must submit to the FCC the two most recent Annual EEO Public File Reports with their license renewal applications.

In addition, all TV station SEUs with five or more full-time employees and all radio station SEUs with more than ten full-time employees must submit to the FCC the two most recent Annual EEO Public File Reports at the midpoint of their eight-year license term along with FCC Form 397—the Broadcast Mid-Term EEO Report.

Exempt SEUs—those with fewer than five full-time employees—do not have to prepare or file Annual or Mid-Term EEO Reports.

For a detailed description of the EEO rule and practical assistance in preparing a compliance plan, broadcasters should consult The FCC’s Equal Employment Opportunity Rules and Policies – A Guide for Broadcasters published by Pillsbury’s Communications Practice Group. This publication is available at: http://www.pillsburylaw.com/publications/broadcasters-guide-to-fcc-equal-employment-opportunity-rules-policies.

Deadline for the Annual EEO Public File Report for Nonexempt Radio and Television SEUs

Consistent with the above, December 1, 2017 is the date by which Nonexempt SEUs of radio and television stations licensed to communities in the states identified above, including Class A television stations, must (i) place their Annual EEO Public File Report in the public inspection files of all stations comprising the SEU, and (ii) post the Report on the websites, if any, of those stations. LPTV stations are also subject to the broadcast EEO rules, even though LPTV stations are not required to maintain a public inspection file. Instead, these stations must maintain a “station records” file containing the station’s authorization and other official documents and must make it available to an FCC inspector upon request. Therefore, if an LPTV station has five or more full-time employees, or is part of a Nonexempt SEU, it must prepare an Annual EEO Public File Report and place it in the station records file. Continue reading →

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After much public debate, the FCC voted 3-2 today to reconsider and reverse the prior decision of the Wheeler FCC to leave the broadcast ownership rules largely unchanged in the 2010/2014 Quadrennial Regulatory Review.  As detailed in an FCC Fact Sheet released after the FCC’s action this morning, the FCC’s ultimate order will hew closely to the draft released several weeks ago which we discussed briefly here.  As a result, the FCC will be eliminating the Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership Rule and the Radio-Television Cross-Ownership Rule, eliminating the Eight-Voices Test for owning a local TV Duopoly, eliminating the attribution of joint sales agreements as a regulated ownership interest, and will consider allowing broadcasters to own two Top-4 rated TV stations in a market on a case-by-case basis.

The FCC is also launching a Diversity/Incubator program to facilitate entry by new players into the broadcast industry, adopting a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking today to gather comments on how that program should be structured and implemented.

Given the extended and very public debate over modernizing the FCC’s broadcast ownership rules, including a forum on Capitol Hill yesterday debating the merits, today’s vote was not a surprise.  Indeed, regardless of the outcome, the Commission is to be congratulated for finally grappling with tough issues that past Commissions have found easier to ignore while continuing to maintain the status quo.  Unfortunately, much of the public debate outside the FCC has been beset with jingoism and shallow analysis that, among other things, presumes broadcasters operate in a walled garden (to borrow a phrase from the tech industry, another player with which broadcasters must now compete).

In an effort to bring greater depth to the discussion, Pillsbury’s John Hane agreed to give his personal views on broadcast ownership regulation at yesterday’s Capitol Hill forum, but unfortunately was unable to participate due to illness.  Before the event, however, John had asked me to look at his opening statement, and it brought home to me how wonderful it would be if jingoism could be replaced with real-world analysis, and politics be sidelined by informed debate.  With John’s gracious permission, reprinted below is his opening statement for yesterday’s forum debate.  You may not agree with him, but he makes a compelling argument with which — based on this morning’s vote — a majority of the current FCC commissioners may well agree.

From the pen of Mr. Hane: Continue reading →

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The FCC today released an Order waiving, at least for this year, the requirement that full power, Class A and low power television stations file what has traditionally been known as a Form 317 report by December 1.  More formally known as the DTV Ancillary/Supplementary Services Report, and due each December 1 for the past two decades, the reports are now actually filed on Form 2100, Schedule G rather than on the discontinued Form 317 (small wonder that everyone still refers to it as the Form 317 report).

The purpose of the report is to inform the FCC if a TV station has used its spectrum to provide non-broadcast services during the past year, and if so, to submit a payment to the government equivalent to 5% of the gross revenues derived from that service.  Ancillary or supplementary services are all services provided on any portion of a DTV station’s digital spectrum that is not necessary to provide the single free over-the-air program stream required by the FCC.  Any video broadcast service that is provided with no direct charge to viewers is exempt.  According to the FCC, examples of services that are considered ancillary or supplementary include “computer software distribution, data transmissions, teletext, interactive materials, aural messages, paging services, audio signals, subscription video, and the like.”  If the station charges a fee for such a service, it must pay the government 5% of the gross revenues derived from that service when it files its report.

The FCC first adopted the requirement in 1999 as a result of a directive contained in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  Since then, the rule has required digital full power commercial and noncommercial TV stations, and later Class A and low power television stations, to report annually “whether they provided ancillary or supplementary services in the 12-month period ending on the preceding September 30.”  The rule requiring the filing of these reports mandates that TV stations file them whether or not they have any non-broadcast services to report.  In fact, the rule pointedly says that failure to file “regardless of revenues from ancillary or supplementary services or provision of such services may result in appropriate sanctions.”  As a result, many thousands of these reports have been filed over the years despite the fact that very few stations have ever offered such services.

When the FCC this summer opened the door in its Modernization proceeding for suggestions as to how to eliminate unnecessary regulatory burdens, a chorus rang out in support of modifying this particular rule.  In one of those now glaringly obvious “how could someone not have thought of this twenty years ago?” moments, first Commissioner O’Rielly and then numerous commenters suggested modifying the rule to eliminate the requirement for all stations except those that actually provide such services.  That led to the FCC voting last month to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing to eliminate the filing requirement for all stations that do not offer ancillary or supplementary services.

Buried in a footnote to that NPRM was the answer to a question many of us had asked over the years; namely, what is the percentage of stations indicating they are actually providing such services?  Having been involved in the filing of well over a thousand of these reports over the years, we had yet to file one indicating a station has actually provided ancillary or supplementary services.  Now we know that, according to the NPRM, fewer than 15 stations nationwide offered such services in 2016, yielding a total payment to the government of roughly $13,000.  That’s fewer than fifteen out of more than 6600 reports filed in 2016 (0.2%).

Stated differently, if the FCC had just asked each of those 6600 stations to mail in $2.00 rather than a report, the government would have garnered more revenue while wasting far less station resources.  Of course, that doesn’t take into account the resources the FCC was forced to expend processing 6600 reports looking for the 15 that actually reported revenues, ensuring that fulfilling this congressional mandate currently costs the FCC more than it brings in.

For that reason, today’s Order waiving this year’s filing requirement for stations not offering such services will likely be welcome news not just for those broadcasters, but for FCC staff as well.  It does, however, remain a short-term fix.  The FCC’s proceeding to permanently change the rule is still underway, with the comment deadline not yet set.  Based on today’s waiver, the odds seem pretty good that by the time December 1, 2018 rolls around, a waiver will no longer be necessary as the change will have been incorporated into the rule.  In a time when even the most mundane proposals for change can generate fervent opposition, this may be the rare Commission rule that lacks a constituency to defend it to the death.

So the vast majority of stations that had been drafting their 2017 report can stop right now.  Of course, if your station is one of the lonely 15 that provided ancillary and supplementary services during the past year, the waiver doesn’t apply and you will still need to file the report and pay the FCC 5% of the gross revenues generated.  Then Congress can debate at length where to spend the $13,000.

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As Lauren Lynch Flick wrote here several weeks ago, the FCC announced in October that it would be lifting its 2013 freeze on certain TV station modification applications that would increase a station’s coverage area.  Lifting the freeze would let full-power and Class A TV stations that weren’t able to expand facilities in the just-ended modification windows for repacked stations (ie, stations that were not affected by the repack) to do so for the first time in nearly five years.

The purpose of the planned thaw is to let these stations implement desired modifications of their facilities long prohibited by the freeze, as well as to react to changes in coverage and interference coming from competing stations that were repacked.  By lifting the 2013 freeze before the FCC opens its planned Special Displacement Window for LPTV stations early next year, the FCC hopes to avoid having LPTV stations apply for and build out displacement facilities only to then be displaced again when these long-frozen full-power and Class A TV stations finally have a chance to modify their facilities.

The news released by the FCC this afternoon is that the thaw will commence on November 28, and will be quite short in duration, ending at 11:59 pm Eastern on December 7.  During this period, full-power and Class A TV stations that were not assigned a new channel in the repack will be able to file for minor modifications of their facilities.  Unlike other recent filing windows where applications filed at any time during the window were all treated as having been filed on the same day, applications filed in this window will be processed on a first come, first served basis.  That means there is a definite benefit to filing on the first day of the window.

While most stations that avoided being moved to a new channel in the repack were thrilled by that fact, being locked in place while those all around them modify and maximize facilities has been frustrating.  Now they have a chance to join other stations in nudging and jostling for position in a post-repack world.  They will need to move quickly, however.  Winter is coming.

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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:

Headlines:

  • Law and Disorder: FCC Fines New York City Man $404,166 for Interfering with NYPD Radio Frequencies
  • A Friendly Port: In Novel FCC Action, Property Owners Face a $144,344 Fine for Housing a Pirate’s Radio Operation
  • Continuous Unidentified Transmissions on a Shared Channel Leads to a $25,000 Fine

FCC Slaps NYC Individual with a $404,166 Fine for Interfering with NYPD Radio Frequencies

After a unique investigation involving a television host’s Twitter account, a New York Police Department investigation into criminal impersonation of a police officer, and a bomb threat to Times Square, the FCC fined a New York City man for operating on NYPD radio frequencies without authorization, malicious interference with officers’ communications, and transmission of false distress calls.

Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits the unauthorized use of any device for radio transmission of energy, communications, or signals. Section 333 of the Act prohibits willful or malicious interference with any stations licensed, authorized, or operated by the United States Government.  The FCC has interpreted this to include repeated disruptions to public safety communications apparatus.  In addition, Section 325(a) prohibits the utterance or transmission of “any false or fraudulent signal of distress, or communication relating thereto.”

In August, 2016, the Enforcement Bureau responded to a TV host’s Twitter message that stated “A man hacked into the NYPD’s secure radio network to yodel repeatedly . . . .” Several weeks later, the NYPD arrested the individual, who admitted under interrogation to making the transmissions.  The transmissions, which went to several NYPD precincts over the course of four months, included a bomb threat to a Times Square pharmacy, threats to harm police officers, music, and profanity.

Several months after the initial arrest, the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability proposing the statutory maximum of $19,246 for each of the 21 violations it found. The individual was found to have violated Section 301 and Section 333 for each of the nine calls he made, and the FCC found three violations of Section 325(a) (one for each of the false threats and distress calls).

Following the individual’s failure to respond to the Notice, the FCC issued a Forfeiture Order to make the proposed $404,166 fine a reality. The FCC stated in the Order that the man’s actions showed deliberate disregard for “the safety of NYPD officers and the public that they are called to serve and protect.”

FCC Proposes a $144,344 Fine Against Pirate Radio Operator and Property Owners

Taking a new approach, the FCC proposed a fine against not only the operator of a Florida-based unlicensed radio station, but against the owners of the property housing the station.

Section 301 of the Communications Act states that “No person shall use or operate any apparatus for the transmission of energy or communications or signals by radio . . . except under and in accordance with this Act and with a license [granted by the FCC].” In past pirate radio actions, the FCC tended to invoke Section 301 against only the pirate radio operator.  In this case, the FCC broadened the definition of a party that “use[s] or operate[s]” a station to include those who knowingly have control and access to the transmission equipment and pay for the station’s utility costs. Continue reading →

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This evening the FCC released the Agenda for its November 16 Public Meeting, and as anticipated, the two Media items on it are the Reconsideration of the FCC’s Broadcast Ownership Rules and the FCC’s proposed approval of ATSC 3.0.  More importantly, the FCC released the proposed draft orders for each item and an associated “Fact Sheet” summarizing the proposals to be voted on at the November meeting.

The content of the broadcast ownership draft Order matches what Chairman Pai had announced in his testimony before a House subcommittee yesterday and in an FCC blog post this afternoon.  Specifically, the Order proposes to eliminate the Newspaper/Broadcast and TV/Radio Cross-Ownership Rules, permit certain TV duopolies by eliminating the Eight Voices Test and assessing proposed Big-4 station combinations on a case-by-case basis, eliminate attribution of Joint Sales Agreements, and create an incubator program to promote new entry and ownership diversity in the broadcast industry.

That would normally have been enough big news for a day, but in an era that makes what once was referred to as “Internet time” seem excruciatingly slow, most of this information was already old news by tonight.  As far as breaking news goes, the more interesting item was the FCC’s reveal of its plans for ATSC 3.0 (“Next Gen TV”), which it had been holding close to the vest until tonight.

As summarized by the FCC’s Fact Sheet attached to the draft Order, the FCC proposes to:

  • Allow television broadcasters to use Next Gen TV on a voluntary, market-driven basis.
  • Require broadcasters that use Next Gen TV to partner with another local station to simulcast their programming in the current digital television (DTV) transmission standard (ATSC 1.0), so that viewers will continue to receive their existing broadcast service.
  • For five years, require the programming aired on the ATSC 1.0 simulcast channel to be “substantially similar” to the programming aired on the ATSC 3.0 channel. This means that the programming must be the same, except for programming features that are based on the enhanced capabilities of ATSC 3.0, advertisements, and promotions for upcoming programs.
  • Exempt low power TV and TV translator stations from the simulcasting requirement, and permit case-by-case waivers if a station has no viable simulcast partner.
  • Retain mandatory carriage rights on cable and satellite systems for simulcast DTV signals, and afford Next Gen TV signals no mandatory carriage rights while the Commission requires local simulcasting.
  • Subject Next Gen TV signals to the public interest obligations that currently apply to television broadcasters.
  • Require broadcasters to provide advance on-air notifications to educate consumers about Next Gen TV service deployment and simulcasting.
  • Incorporate specific parts of the Next Gen TV technical standard (A/321 and A/322) into [the FCC’s] rules and explain the methodology used to calculate interference. The A/322 requirement would apply only to a broadcaster’s primary video stream and would sunset five years from the effective date of the rules unless extended by the Commission.
  • Conclude that it is unnecessary to adopt a Next Gen TV tuner mandate for new television receivers.

The FCC also proposes to adopt a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to:

  • Seek comment on issues related to exceptions and waivers of the requirement that Next Gen TV broadcasters partner with a local station to simulcast DTV signals.
  • Seek comment on whether to let full power broadcasters use vacant channels in the television broadcast band to encourage use of Next Gen TV.
  • Tentatively conclude that local simulcasting should not change the “significantly viewed ” status of a Next Gen TV station for purposes of cable and satellite carriage.

For broadcasters now diving into the spectrum repack and looking for the silver lining in having to rebuild on a new channel, tonight’s announcement will be welcome news.  Broadcasters have been urging the FCC to move forward on approving ATSC 3.0 so that it can be incorporated into station rebuilds and business planning, where any form of uncertainty complicates matters.  By revealing tonight its working draft of the ATSC 3.0 Order, the FCC has begun to remove that uncertainty. The remainder will hopefully dissipate on November 16.

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In a move that would have once been stunning, but which now was so expected as to be anticlimactic, the FCC today voted to eliminate the Main Studio Rule.  In doing so, it also eliminated various associated requirements such as the mandate that a station’s main studio be staffed during normal business hours with at least two employees (one management, one staff), and that it have the capability to locally originate programming.  The FCC did require that stations eliminating their main studio make any part of their public file that is not yet online available to the public during normal business hours “at an accessible place within its community of license.”  It also required stations to ensure that community members can continue to reach the station by telephone without cost, typically by maintaining a local or toll-free number.

Even though the FCC eliminated the rule on its own motion rather than in response to a petition (the times they are a-changin’ at the FCC), the move was not without controversy, with Commissioners Clyburn and Rosenworcel voting against the change.  Both expressed concern that allowing a station to close its local main studio would forever sever the intimate connection between the station and its community.  That is not a concern to be taken lightly, as the close connection between stations and their communities is what has made broadcasting unique among its many competitors.

Realistically, however, the elimination of the rule will not mark the elimination of main studios.  Main studios did not originally arise from regulatory fiat, but from practicality.  In the early days of radio, when pressure from musicians’ unions caused many radio stations to ban the airing of recorded music, main studios were a necessity.  There were no satellites, fiber feeds, or microwave links to relay programming long distances, so stations had to create programming under their own roof.  Even those stations that did play records had to have a place to play them close to the transmitter.  Early telephone lines were noisy, expensive, unreliable, and depending on your location, possibly unavailable.

But technology marched on.  One of my fun experiences as a young lawyer was representing one of the oldest radio stations in the world and seeing the antique sound lathes used to cut grooves in disks so large you could barely get your arms around them.  Programs were “syndicated” by physically transporting these disks around the country from station to station.  Even with this advance in technology, however, stations still had to have a place near their transmitter to play the disks, so by definition, every station had some local program origination capability.

As wireline connections around the country became more ubiquitous and reliable, and radio networks began to grow, the main studio changed with it.  No longer did every minute of programming need to be produced at the transmitter site; it could be relayed from long distances.  It was during this period, specifically 1939, that the FCC created the Main Studio Rule, forever freezing in bureaucratic amber what a main studio should look like.

Since then, a thousand technological advances have changed broadcasting (one of them being the advent of commercial TV).  Equipment became smaller, more reliable, and automated.  Microwave, satellite, and now Internet transmission made program distribution to stations easy and relatively inexpensive.  Hard-drive based music servers allowed diverse program schedules to be created and aired on radio stations without anyone needing to sit at a turntable flipping an LP every three minutes.  Relieved of these mechanical duties, on-air talent could focus all their energies on connecting with their audience rather than “tending” the station and its equipment.  And because of the ease with which audio and video can be relayed, that on-air talent could now do all of that from nearly anywhere in the world.  The days of having to be within a few hundred feet of the transmitter at all times are long gone.

Of course, that’s the operational side of the equation.  One of the reasons the Main Studio Rule was created was to “enable members of the public to participate in live programs and present complaints or suggestions to the stations.”  However, the wonder of many of the technologies discussed above is not that they exist, but that they are sufficiently inexpensive that not only stations but audiences are using them.  Once, appearing on a live radio program would have required a trip to the main studio.  Later, calling in to a live network program in New York from Kansas would have been so expensive as to likely exceed the value of any prize you might win.

That problem was first solved with toll-free calling to the distant studio — a technology that came on the scene 25 years after the Main Studio Rule was created.  Then toll-free numbers were supplanted by Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol (VOIP) equipment and cellphones that eliminated the need to pay separate long distance charges.  That capability was then improved upon by Skype and other services that allowed viewers and listeners to appear aurally and visually anywhere in the world with a broadband connection.

As for listeners being able to “present complaints or suggestions to the stations,” if toll-free numbers didn’t address that, email certainly did.  And if not email, then texts and social media.  I would be surprised to hear if there is a single station in the country that gets more main studio visits in a year than it receives messages via social media in a day.

So with the elimination of the Main Studio Rule will main studios just disappear?  Hardly.  They’ll just look less like 1939.

For most stations, main studios will continue to be useful hubs for organizing programming and operations.  They just won’t all need to look and operate the same.  Stations emphasizing a hyper-local format will have main studios so sophisticated that the original drafters of the Main Studio Rule would be in awe; a local studio with capabilities far beyond what any national radio network had in 1939 or afterwards.

Other stations, for example those whose formats focus on importing high-quality regional or national programming and distributing it locally, will have main studios with topnotch communications and automation gear, but probably no employee staring at the front door all day just in case someone shows up to see the public file (which is or soon will be online).  We live in the age of optimization, and main studios will be optimized to connect with a station’s audience, not to meet a 1939 conception of what a main studio should look like.

Of course, we have to be realistic.  Some stations will certainly shut down their main studio (particularly if we define a “main studio” as a place of daily program origination) because they believe they can operate more efficiently without that affectation of early radio.  There will also be those that close their main studio to reduce operating costs to the greatest extent possible.  In an era when competition from the Internet and other media has caused numerous rural stations to shut down and mail their licenses back to the FCC, allowing a station to operate without a main studio certainly seems preferable to forcing it to go dark because it can’t meet studio expenses.

And in that regard, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge what the Main Studio Rule really was — a government mandate to maintain a rigid brick-and-mortar presence in an Internet Age.  It’s existence hindered stations from evolving and adapting to the rapidly changing business strategies of their many non-broadcast competitors.  Of course the analogy doesn’t stop there.  Just as most people like the idea of a physical store where they can go and handle the merchandise, they like the idea of a main studio — a place where, if they ever felt like it, they could visit and see the product being created.  Of course, many of the people that like the idea of having a physical store buy everything online, and many that like the idea of a traditional main studio are streaming their music and video from non-broadcast sources.

Broadcasters could perhaps afford the luxury of having a formal main studio designed to suit the FCC when they were the only game in town, but that was then, and this is now.  Most broadcasters will continue operating a main studio in one form or another, and if viewers and listeners find the programming from such stations is better and tune in accordingly, there will be plenty of stations with elegant main studios for the foreseeable future.  If, however, the stations that divert those funds to program acquisition or other initiatives are the ones attracting larger audiences, then, and only then, will the era of the main studio finally draw to a close.