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Today the FCC publicly released a Report and Order eliminating TV stations’ annual obligation to report whether they have provided feeable ancillary or supplementary services on their spectrum during the past year unless they have actually provided such services.  The order was originally slated for discussion and a vote at next week’s FCC Open Meeting, but the Commission wound up adopting this widely supported change early, unanimously voting for it on circulation.

Previously, all digital television stations had to report by December 1 of each year whether they had provided feeable ancillary or supplementary services in the past year, what those services were, and then submit payment to the government of 5% of the gross revenue derived from such services.  Ancillary and supplementary services are any services provided on a TV station’s digital spectrum that is not needed to provide the single free over-the-air program stream required by the FCC.  The reason the word “feeable” is important is that broadcast video streams (i.e., multicast streams) do not trigger payment of the 5% fee.  Examples previously provided by the FCC of feeable ancillary and supplementary services include computer software distribution and data transmissions.

Observers had expected this rule change for a while.  In the spring of 2017, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai spearheaded the “Modernization of Media Regulation Initiative,” which aimed to institute a massive review of potentially outdated or irrelevant regulations affecting broadcasters, cable system operators, and satellite providers.  At Commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s urging, the Commission originally proposed today’s changes in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in October 2017.  The following month, the Media Bureau spontaneously waived the December 1, 2017 filing deadline for TV stations that had not provided feeable services over the prior twelve-month reporting period, signaling that the proposed rule change was likely coming.

Indeed, the FCC received broad support from commenters for the change.  In last year’s NPRM, the FCC noted that of 1,384 full-power commercial TV stations, fewer than 15 reported revenues from ancillary or supplementary services, netting the Commission around $13,000 in fees.

As a result, today’s Order amends Section 73.624(g) of the FCC’s Rules to require that only TV stations actually providing feeable ancillary or supplementary services need file the report in the future.  The FCC could find no justification for the immense expense incurred in having broadcasters submit, and the FCC collect and process, forms merely indicating the station hadn’t provided such services.  It wasn’t so much the FCC concluding that the expense outweighed the public interest benefit; it was the FCC being unable to point to a public interest benefit.

Which just makes you wonder just how this rule stayed in place for nearly 20 years, and no prior FCC bothered to ask that fundamental question.

 

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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 special issue takes a look at the government’s renewed efforts to scuttle Pirate Radio operations.

Since the government first began regulating the airwaves, it has struggled to eliminate unlicensed radio operators.  In its latest effort, the FCC is taking a hardline approach to this illegal behavior and is partnering with local and federal law enforcement, as well as Congress, to accomplish the task. While Chairman Pai has made clear that pirate radio prosecutions are once again a priority at the FCC, it is Commissioner O’Rielly who has been the most vocal on this front, calling for more aggressive action against unauthorized operators.  The continued prevalence of pirate radio operations has been chalked up to several factors, including insufficient enforcement mechanisms and resources, the procedural difficulties in tracking down unregulated parties, and lackadaisical enforcement until recently. Regulators and broadcast industry leaders have also expressed frustration with the whack-a-mole nature of pirate radio enforcement—shutting down one operation only to have another pop up nearby.

Real Consequences

Congress has also begun to take an interest in the issue, with the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology holding a hearing last week discussing the subject.  One of the witnesses was David Donovan, president of the New York State Broadcasters Association.  In his testimony, he listed numerous risks that unlicensed operations present to the public, including failure to adhere to Emergency Alert System rules and RF emissions limits (which can be critically important where a pirate’s antenna is mounted on a residential structure).  Pirate operators also create interference to other communications systems, including those used for public safety operations, while causing financial harm to legitimate broadcast stations by diverting advertising revenue and listeners from authorized stations.

Despite these harms, pirate operations continue to spread.  This past month, the FCC issued a Notice of Unlicensed Operation (“NOUO”) to a New Jersey individual after the FCC received complaints from the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) that an FM station’s broadcasts were causing harmful interference to aeronautical communications operating on air-to-ground frequencies.  FCC agents tracked the errant transmissions to the individual’s residence and confirmed that he was transmitting without authorization.

Days later, the FCC issued an NOUO to another New Jersey resident who was transmitting unlicensed broadcasts from a neighborhood near Newark Airport.  Once again, FCC agents were able to determine the source of the signal and found that the property owner was not licensed to broadcast on the frequency in question.

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Each full power and Class A TV station being repacked must file its next Transition Progress Report with the FCC by April 10, 2018. The Report must detail the progress a station has made in constructing facilities on its newly assigned channel and in terminating operations on its current channel during the months of January, February, and March 2018.

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The next Children’s Television Programming Report must be filed with the FCC and placed in stations’ public inspection files by April 10, 2018, reflecting programming aired during the months of January, February, and March 2018.

Statutory and Regulatory Requirements

As a result of the Children’s Television Act of 1990 (“Act”) and the FCC rules adopted under the Act, full power and Class A television stations are required, among other things, to: (1) limit the amount of commercial matter aired during programs originally produced and broadcast for an audience of children 12 years of age and under, and (2) air programming responsive to the educational and informational needs of children 16 years of age and under.

These two obligations, in turn, require broadcasters to comply with two paperwork requirements.  Specifically, stations must: (1) place in their public inspection file one of four prescribed types of documentation demonstrating compliance with the commercial limits in children’s television, and (2) submit FCC Form 398, which requests information regarding the educational and informational programming the station has aired for children 16 years of age and under.  Form 398 must be filed electronically with the FCC.  The FCC automatically places the electronically filed Form 398 filings into the respective station’s online public inspection file.  However, each station should confirm that has occurred to ensure that its public inspection file is complete.  The base fine for noncompliance with the requirements of the FCC’s Children’s Television Programming Rule is $10,000.

Broadcasters must file their reports via the Licensing and Management System (LMS), accessible at https://enterpriseefiling.fcc.gov/dataentry/login.html.

Noncommercial Educational Television Stations

Because noncommercial educational television stations are precluded from airing commercials, the commercial limitation rules do not apply to such stations.  Accordingly, noncommercial television stations have no obligation to place commercial limits documentation in their public inspection files.  Similarly, though noncommercial stations are required to air programming responsive to the educational and informational needs of children 16 years of age and under, they do not need to complete FCC Form 398.  They must, however, maintain records of their own in the event their performance is challenged at license renewal time.  In the face of such a challenge, a noncommercial station will be required to have documentation available that demonstrates its efforts to meet the needs of children.

Commercial Television Stations

Commercial Limitations

The FCC’s rules require that stations limit the amount of “commercial matter” appearing in children’s programs to 12 minutes per clock hour on weekdays and 10.5 minutes per clock hour on the weekend.  In addition to commercial spots, website addresses displayed during children’s programming and promotional material must comply with a four-part test or they will be considered “commercial matter” and counted against the commercial time limits.  In addition, the content of some websites whose addresses are displayed during programming or promotional material are subject to host-selling limitations.  Program promos also qualify as “commercial matter” unless they promote (i) children’s educational/informational programming, or (ii) other age-appropriate programming appearing on the same channel.  Licensees must prepare supporting documents to demonstrate compliance with these limits on a quarterly basis.

For commercial stations, proof of compliance with these commercial limitations must be placed in the public inspection file by the tenth day of the calendar quarter following the quarter during which the commercials were aired.  Consequently, this proof of compliance should be placed in your public inspection file by April 10, 2018, covering programming aired during the months of January, February, and March 2018. Continue reading →

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The next Quarterly Issues/Programs List (“Quarterly List”) must be placed in stations’ public inspection files by April 10, 2018, reflecting information for the months of January, February, and March 2018.

Content of the Quarterly List

The FCC requires each broadcast station to air a reasonable amount of programming responsive to significant community needs, issues, and problems as determined by the station.  The FCC gives each station the discretion to determine which issues facing the community served by the station are the most significant and how best to respond to them in the station’s overall programming.

To demonstrate a station’s compliance with this public interest obligation, the FCC requires the station to maintain and place in the public inspection file a Quarterly List reflecting the “station’s most significant programming treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period.” By its use of the term “most significant,” the FCC has noted that stations are not required to list all responsive programming, but only that programming which provided the most significant treatment of the issues identified.

Given that program logs are no longer mandated by the FCC, the Quarterly Lists may be the most important evidence of a station’s compliance with its public service obligations.  The lists also provide important support for the certification of Class A television station compliance discussed below.  We therefore urge stations not to “skimp” on the Quarterly Lists, and to err on the side of over-inclusiveness.  Otherwise, stations risk a determination by the FCC that they did not adequately serve the public interest during the license term.  Stations should include in the Quarterly Lists as much issue-responsive programming as they feel is necessary to demonstrate fully their responsiveness to community needs.  Taking extra time now to provide a thorough Quarterly List will help reduce risk at license renewal time.

It should be noted that the FCC has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Quarterly Lists and often brings enforcement actions against stations that do not have fully complete Quarterly Lists or that do not timely place such lists in their public inspection file.  The FCC’s base fine for missing Quarterly Lists is $10,000.

Preparation of the Quarterly List

The Quarterly Lists are required to be placed in the public inspection file by January 10, April 10, July 10, and October 10 of each year.  The next Quarterly List is required to be placed in stations’ public inspection files by April 10, 2018, covering the period from January 1, 2018 through March 31, 2018. Continue reading →

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Yesterday’s enactment of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018 (feel free to read it, it’s only 2,232 pages) was welcomed by broadcasters. If you’ve been following the trade press, you’ll know that’s largely because it not only added a billion dollars to the FCC’s fund for reimbursing broadcasters displaced by the spectrum repack, but for the first time made FM, LPTV and TV Translator stations eligible for repack reimbursement funds.

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This past Friday, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit released its long-awaited decision in ACA International et al. v. FCC, a case involving the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) that has significant implications for any business contacting consumers by telephone or text. The decision arises out of challenges to an omnibus Declaratory Ruling and Order released by the FCC in July of 2015, which itself was responding to requests for exemption from, or clarification of, the FCC’s TCPA rules, especially the more stringent FCC rules that took effect on October 16, 2013. In the Declaratory Ruling and Order, the FCC adopted a very expansive interpretation of the TCPA, exacerbating, rather than alleviating, long-standing litigation risks that many companies face under the TCPA.

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

April 1, 2018 is the deadline for broadcast stations licensed to communities in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas 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 an EEO Mid-Term Report on FCC Form 397 by April 2 (while the mid-point of the license renewal term for stations in the states listed below is April 1, because that date falls on a weekend, submission of FCC Form 397 may be made by April 2, 2018.)

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 when they file their license renewal applications.

In addition, all TV station SEUs with five or more full-time employees and all radio station SEUs with 11 or more full-time employees must submit to the FCC the two most recent Annual EEO Public File Reports at the mid-point 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. Continue reading →

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People often conflate the term “FCC lawyer” with “Communications Lawyer,” thinking of an FCC Lawyer as someone who represents clients solely with regard to interactions with the FCC and its rules. A Communications Lawyer, however, represents communications clients in a variety of venues and on a variety of issues whose common thread is that they affect media or telecom companies in a unique or disproportionate way.  Communications Lawyers therefore find themselves not just before the FCC, but handling complex transactions, litigation, and legislative matters where the harm or benefit has little to do with the FCC, and much to do with how the action impacts a media or telecom client.

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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:

  • FCC Proposes Forfeitures Against South Carolina Stations for Failure to Maintain Public Inspection File
  • Noncommercial Station and FCC Settle Dispute Over Promotional Announcements
  • Brooklyn-based Bitcoin Miner Warned Over Harmful Interference
  • FCC Issues Notice to Security Camera Manufacturer for Device ID Violations

FCC Proposes Fine Against Licensee of South Carolina Stations for Failure to Maintain Complete Public Files

In two separate Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NALs”) released on the same day, the FCC found two commonly owned radio stations apparently liable for repeated violations of its public inspection file rule.

Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules requires stations to maintain a public inspection file that includes various documents and items related to the broadcaster’s operations.  For example, subsection 73.3526(e)(11) requires TV stations to place in their public inspection file Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists describing the “programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period.”

In their respective license renewal applications, the stations disclosed that they had failed to locate numerous Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists from the 2003 to 2010 time period.  According to the licensee, the gaps in its reporting were due to several personnel changes at all levels of the stations as well as computer and software changes made over the past ten years.

Between the two NALs, the FCC found a total of 38 missing Lists (21 for one station, and 17 for the other station), which it considered a “pattern of abuse.” Pursuant to the FCC’s forfeiture policies and Section 1.80(b)(4) of its Rules, the base forfeiture for a violation of Section 73.3526 is $10,000.  The FCC can adjust the forfeiture upwards or downwards depending on the circumstances of the violation.  Here, the FCC proposed a $12,000 forfeiture in response to the station with 21 missing Lists and a $10,000 forfeiture for the station with 17 missing Lists.  Visit here to learn more about the FCC’s Quarterly Issues/Programs List requirements.  For information on maintaining a public inspection file, check out Pillsbury’s advisory on the topic.

“Ad” Nauseam: FCC Resolves Investigation Into Underwriting Rules Violation

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with the licensee of two noncommercial educational (“NCE”) radio stations in Arizona and California after receiving complaints that the stations aired commercial advertising in violation of the Communications Act and the FCC’s Rules (together, the “Underwriting Laws”).

Section 399B of the Communications Act of 1934 prohibits noncommercial stations from making their facilities “available to any person for the broadcasting of any advertisement.” Section 73.503(d) of the FCC’s Rules prohibits an NCE station from making promotional announcements “on behalf of for profit entities” in exchange for any benefit or payment.  Such stations may, however, broadcast “underwriting announcements” that identify but do not “promote” station donors.  Such identifications may not, among other things, include product descriptions, price comparisons, or calls to action on behalf of a for-profit underwriter.  The FCC recognizes that it is “at times difficult to distinguish between language that promotes versus that which merely identifies the underwriter,” and expects licensees to exercise good faith judgment in their underwriting messages.

In response to complaints from an individual who alleged that the stations had repeatedly violated the Underwriting Laws, the FCC sent the licensee multiple letters of inquiry regarding questionable underwriting messages between August 2016 and March 2017.  According to the FCC, the licensee did not dispute many of the facts in the letters, and the parties entered into the Consent Decree shortly thereafter.  Under the Consent Decree, the licensee (1) admitted that it violated the Underwriting Laws; (2) is prohibited from airing any underwriting announcement on behalf of a for-profit entity for one year; (3) must implement a compliance plan; and (4) must pay a $115,000 civil penalty.

Brooklyn Bitcoin Mining Operation Draws FCC Ire Over Harmful Interference

The FCC issued a Notification of Harmful Interference (“Notification”) to an individual it found was operating Bitcoin mining hardware in his Brooklyn, New York home.

Section 15 of the FCC’s Rules regulates the use of unlicensed equipment that emits radio frequency energy (“RF devices”), a broad category of equipment that includes many personal electronics, Bluetooth and WiFi-enabled devices, and even most modern light fixtures.  Such devices must not interrupt or seriously degrade an authorized radio communication service.  The FCC’s rules require a device user to cease operation if notified by the FCC that the device is causing harmful interference. Continue reading →