July 31, 2020 Marks First Deadline Under FCC’s New Must-Carry Election Regime
With much of the United States under COVID-19 stay-at-home directives, and frost warnings still in the forecast, it’s as good a time as any to review the upcoming cable and satellite carriage election process for television broadcasters. The FCC recently completed an overhaul of its rules governing how eligible television broadcasters provide notice of their carriage elections to cable and satellite companies. The first deadline under those new procedures is July 31, 2020, when broadcasters must update their online contact information at the FCC as a precursor to implementing the FCC’s new paperless MVPD carriage notification procedures.
Ever since Congress created the must-carry/retransmission consent regime in the 1992 Cable Act, broadcasters have mailed paper notices to MVPDs regarding their must-carry/retransmission consent elections prior to October 1st of every third year. With regard to satellite distributors, this process has always required stations to send their election notices via certified mail, return receipt requested. While the rules didn’t specifically require this for notices to cable systems, the lack of specificity in the rules regarding cable notices led most broadcasters to use the same procedures as used with satellite providers.
This approach often imposed significant costs on broadcasters, requiring them to: (1) identify the MVPDs serving each of their markets, (2) locate the correct contact person for carriage matters at each MVPD, (3) prepare the election letters, (4) send the letters to that contact person via certified mail, (5) confirm receipt of each letter, and (6) be prepared to move quickly to find new contact information and send new election letters (which still must be received by the October 1 deadline) where the post office returns an election letter as undeliverable.
In 2019, the FCC took the first step to simplify this process and reduce the corresponding costs. Specifically, it adopted rules requiring both television broadcasters and MVPDs to post in their online Public Inspection Files an email address and telephone number for the employee responsible for handling carriage inquiries. In addition, MVPDs must place similar contact information in the FCC’s COALS filing system. The FCC has now directed television stations and MVPDs to complete these tasks by July 31, 2020.
In the FCC’s new paperless notice system, after the contact information has been uploaded, TV stations will have until October 1, 2020, to upload to their online Public Inspection File their carriage elections. This election will cover the next three-year cycle from January 1, 2021, to December 31, 2023.
Because noncommercial stations cannot elect retransmission consent on MVPDs, the FCC found that it could simplify the process for noncommercial stations by eliminating the need for further triennial elections after the October 1, 2020, election notice is placed in the station’s Public Inspection File.
This new “Public File” approach also simplifies the process for commercial TV stations going forward in that they will only have to send a separate notice to an MVPD if the station seeks to change its election for that MVPD from its election for the prior three-year cycle. In such cases, the station must send an email to the MVPD containing certain information with regard to its change in election, and send a “carbon copy” to a newly-created FCC email address for such notifications. The MVPD is then required to acknowledge receipt via email.
The copy sent to the FCC email address is intended to serve as evidence of the station’s effort to provide the required email notice to the MVPD. If the station does not receive the required acknowledgement from the MVPD, it must call the MVPD’s contact telephone number. Where the station retains records demonstrating that it took the above steps, and timely uploaded its election to its online Public File, the FCC will consider the station’s election to be effective.
In adopting these new procedures, the FCC noted that two classes of television broadcast facilities eligible for carriage are not required to maintain online Public Inspection Files: (i) low-power television stations that qualify for must-carry rights, and (ii) qualified educational television translators. Because of this, the FCC adopted rules in March 2020, to implement slightly different election notification requirements for these facilities.
Specifically, eligible low-power television stations and educational television translator stations will be required to email each MVPD by October 1, 2020, and provide certain “baseline information” regarding their carriage election (or carriage request in the case of NCE translators). Going forward, qualified LPTV stations must only email an MVPD when seeking to change their election for the upcoming three-year cycle. Like full-power commercial TV stations, LPTV stations must send a “carbon copy” to the FCC’s must-carry notification email address, and follow-up with a telephone call to the MVPD if they do not receive a verification of receipt email from the MVPD.
If the MVPD has any questions regarding carriage, it is permitted to rely on the contact information for the station contained in the FCC’s LMS filing system. For that reason, eligible LPTV stations and educational television translators must update their contact information in LMS no later than July 31, 2020, and keep it updated thereafter.
The new rules should reduce the number of broadcasters standing in line at their local post offices in late September, but for this new system to work, broadcasters and MVPDs need to make sure that they update their contact information by July 31st, 2020, and keep it up to date thereafter.