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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:

  • Virginia FM Station’s Years of Missing Quarterly Lists Lead to Proposed $15,000 Fine and a Reduced License Term
  • FCC Investigates Ohio College Station Over Unauthorized Silence and Scheduling Violation
  • New York Amateur Radio Operator’s Threats and Harmful Interference Lead to Proposed $17,000 Fine

Feeling Listless: Virginia Station With Years of Missing Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists Hit with Proposed $15,000 Fine, Shortened License Term

In a Memorandum Opinion and Order and Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture, the FCC found that a Virginia FM station failed to prepare and upload eight years’ worth of Quarterly Issues/Programs lists, resulting in a proposed $15,000 fine.  The FCC also indicated it would grant the station’s license renewal application, but only for an abbreviated two-year license term.

As we noted in a recent advisory, the FCC requires each broadcast station to maintain and place in the station’s online Public Inspection File a Quarterly Issues/Programs List reflecting the “station’s most significant programming treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period.”  At license renewal time, the FCC may review these lists to determine whether the station met its obligation to serve the needs and interests of its local community during the license term.  The FCC has noted this and other such “public information requirements” are “integral components of a licensee’s obligation to serve the public interest and meet its community service obligations.”

Starting with TV stations in 2012, the FCC has required stations to transition their physical local Public Inspection Files to the FCC’s online portal.  By March 1, 2018, all broadcast radio stations were required to have uploaded the bulk of their Public File materials to the online Public Inspection File and maintain the online file going forward.  At license renewal time, licensees must certify that all required documentation has been placed in a station’s Public Inspection File in a timely fashion.  The license renewal cycle for radio stations began in June of this year.

In its license renewal application, the FM station admitted that it had run into some “difficulties” with the online Public Inspection File and had not met “certain deadlines.”  In the course of its investigation, the Media Bureau found that the licensee had in fact failed to prepare any Quarterly Issues/Program Lists during the preceding eight-year license term, and, as a result, also failed to upload the materials to the station’s Public Inspection File.

The FCC’s forfeiture policies establish a base fine of $10,000 for failure to maintain a station’s Public File.  However, the FCC may adjust a fine upward or downward depending on the circumstances of the violation.  Considering the extensive nature of the violations and the station’s failure to disclose its behavior in the years prior to its license renewal application, the Media Bureau increased this amount to $12,000.  The Media Bureau then tacked on an additional $3,000 fine, the base amount for a station’s failure to file required information, for a total proposed fine of $15,000.

Turning to the station’s license renewal application, the Media Bureau deemed the station’s behavior “serious” and representative of a “pattern of abuse” due to years of violations.  As a result, the Bureau indicated it would only grant the station a shortened license term of two years, instead of a full eight-year term, and even then, only assuming the Bureau found no other violations that would “preclude such a grant.”

In a Silent Way: University FM Station Warned Over Unauthorized Silence and Time Share Violation

In a recent Notice of Violation, the FCC cited a northern Ohio university’s FM station for failing to request authorization to remain off-air for several months and for altering the broadcast schedule that it shares with another station on the same frequency without notifying the FCC.

Part 73 of the FCC’s Rules requires a station to broadcast in accordance with its FCC authorization.  While stations are generally authorized to operate for unlimited time, some noncommercial FM stations split time on a shared frequency via a time-sharing agreement.  The FCC will usually only permit a departure from the schedule set forth in a time-sharing agreement once a written and signed agreement to that effect has been filed with the FCC by each licensee.  In the event that circumstances “beyond the control of a licensee” make it impossible for a station to adhere to this schedule or continue broadcasting altogether, the station must notify the FCC by the tenth day of limited or discontinued operation.  A station that expects to be silent for over 30 days must request Special Temporary Authority from the FCC to do so. Continue reading →

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Quarterly documentation of stations’ compliance with their obligations under the Children’s Television Act of 1990 for the Third Quarter of 2019 is due to be placed in stations’ Public Inspection Files by October 10, 2019, and in the case of educational children’s television programming, to be filed electronically with the FCC on that same date. 

Interim Filing Procedures Regarding Educational Children’s Television Programming

The Children’s Television Act of 1990 requires full power and Class A television stations 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.  On July 12, 2019, the FCC adopted a number of changes to its children’s television programming rules, primarily with respect to the educational television programming requirements.  Substantively, the new rules provide broadcasters with additional flexibility in scheduling educational children’s television programming, and modify some aspects of the definition of “core” educational children’s television programming.  These portions of the revisions went into effect on September 16, 2019.

Procedurally, the new rules eliminate quarterly filing of the Children’s Television Programming Report in favor of an annual filing, and change other information collection and reporting provisions.  Unfortunately, the rule changes that affect broadcasters’ reporting requirements have not yet been approved by the Office of Management and Budget, and the report form itself has not been updated to reflect the new substantive requirements.

As a result, for purposes of the quarterly Children’s Television Programming Report due on October 10, 2019, broadcasters should answer all questions regarding such programming that aired prior to September 16, 2019, and should not respond to the question concerning what programming will be aired in the upcoming quarter.  When calculating the average number of hours per week of educational children’s television programming aired, broadcasters should only consider the first 11 weeks of the quarter.  Programming aired on or after September 16, 2019 is to be reported on the station’s next report.

The next report will be broadcasters’ first “annual” Children’s Television Programming Report and will cover the period from September 16, 2019 through December 31, 2019.  That report must be filed by January 30, 2020.

Summary of Changes 

Prior to September 16, 2019, the FCC’s educational children’s television programming rules generally required that a station air an average of 3 hours of “core” educational children’s television programming per week on each of its streams, averaged over a six-month period, to receive staff-level license renewal approval.  To be considered a “core” program, the program had to be specifically designed to meet the educational and informational needs of children 16 years of age and under; be identified as such on-air with the “E/I” symbol displayed throughout the airing of the programming; be identified to publishers of program guides along with the target age range of the program; be “program-length,” that is, at least 30 minutes in length; and be regularly scheduled to air on a weekly basis between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.  In addition, broadcasters had to identify the educational purpose of the program in their quarterly Children’s Television Programming Report and advertise the availability and location of that report to the public.  Further provisions applied with regard to preempting and making good educational children’s television programming and the treatment of educational children’s programming airing on two of a station’s programming streams during a quarter.

The FCC’s new rules revise both the three hour per week renewal processing guideline and the definition of core children’s television programming.  Specifically, as of September 16, 2019, stations can continue to meet their obligation by airing an average of 3 hours per week of regularly-scheduled, weekly, program-length educational programming on their primary stream, but are not required to air additional children’s television programming on their multicast streams.  As an alternative to airing 3 hours per week of regularly-scheduled educational programming, stations may now air 26 hours per quarter (2 hours per week) of regularly scheduled, weekly, program-length educational programming, and air an additional 52 hours of programming throughout the year that is not provided on a regularly-scheduled basis (such as educational specials or other non-weekly programming) which is at least 30 minutes in length.   Alternatively, these 52 hours of non-regularly-scheduled programming can be educational programming that is less than 30 minutes in length, such as PSAs or interstitials.

Under any scenario, licensees may move up to 13 hours per quarter of their regularly-scheduled, program-length educational children’s television programming to a multicast stream, but any station opting to air 52 hours per year of programming that it is not regularly-scheduled must air that programming on the station’s primary stream.  In addition, broadcasters are permitted to count as regularly-scheduled any children’s educational program episode that was preempted but made good within seven days before or after the date on which it was originally scheduled to air.

For purposes of compliance with the new rules in the Fourth Quarter of 2019, stations must therefore either air 45 hours of regularly-scheduled weekly core programming on their primary stream from September 16 through December 31, 2019, or they must air at least 30 hours of such programming (at least 4 hours on or before September 30) and an additional 15 hours of core programming that is not regularly-scheduled and which may be less than 30 minutes in length.  Of those 30 hours, up to 2 hours can air on the station’s multicast streams on or before September 30 and up to 13 hours can air on the station’s multicast streams from November 1 to December 31.  All of the remaining 15 hours of non-regularly-scheduled or short form programming must air on the station’s primary stream.

Third Quarter 2019 Filing Requirements

Turning back to the Third Quarter 2019 Report due on October 10, broadcasters must 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 the Children’s Television Report (FCC Form 2100, Schedule H, which is often referred to by its former designation as Form 398), which requests information regarding the educational and informational programming the station has aired for children 16 years of age and under.  The Children’s Television Programming Report must be filed electronically with the FCC.  The FCC automatically places the electronically filed Children’s Television Programming Report filings into the respective station’s Public Inspection File.  However, each station should confirm that has occurred to ensure that its Public Inspection File is complete. Continue reading →

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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:

  • Faith-Based Station Settles With FCC After Preempting KidVid Programming With Fundraising
  • Arizona LPFM Gets License Reinstated in Consent Decree
  • Christmas Tree’s Harmful Interference Results in Consent Decree With LED Company

Gotta Have Faith: Washington TV Station That Preempted Children’s Programming With Fundraising Settles With FCC

The FCC recently entered into a Consent Decree with the licensee of a faith-based Washington TV station for inaccurate Children’s Television Programming Reports and for failing to provide a sufficient amount of “core” children’s educational programming.

Pursuant to the Children’s Television Act of 1990, the FCC’s children’s television programming (“KidVid”) rules require TV stations to provide programming that “serve[s] the educational and informational needs of children.”  Under the KidVid guidelines in place at the time of the alleged violations, stations were expected to air an average of at least three hours per week of “core” educational children’s programming per program stream.  To count as “core” programming, the programs had to be regularly-scheduled, at least 30 minutes in length, and broadcast between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 10 p.m.  A station that aired somewhat less than the averaged three hours per week of core programming could still satisfy its children’s programming obligations by airing other types of programs demonstrating “a level of commitment” to educating children that is “at least equivalent” to airing three hours per week of core programming.  The FCC has since acknowledged that this alternative approach resulted in so much uncertainty that stations rarely invoked it.

Stations must file a Children’s Television Programming Report (currently quarterly, soon to be annually) with the FCC demonstrating compliance with these guidelines.  The reports are then placed in the station’s online Public Inspection File.  Upon a station’s application for license renewal, the Media Bureau reviews these reports to assess the station’s performance over the previous license term.  If the Media Bureau determines that the station failed to comply with the KidVid guidelines, it must refer the application to the full Commission for review of the licensee’s compliance with the Children’s Television Act of 1990.  As we have previously discussed, the FCC recently made significant changes to its KidVid core programming and reporting obligations, much of it having gone into effect earlier this month.

During its review of the station’s 2014 license renewal application, the Media Bureau noticed shortfalls in the station’s core programming scheduling and inaccuracies in the station’s quarterly KidVid reports over the previous term.  It therefore issued a Letter of Inquiry to the station to obtain additional information.  In response, the station acknowledged that it had in fact preempted core programming with live fundraising, but asserted that it still met its obligations through other “supplemental” programming, albeit outside of the 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. window for core programming.  Inaccuracies in its reports were blamed on “clerical errors.”

The Media Bureau concluded that the station’s supplemental programming did not count toward the station’s core programming requirements.  Without getting into the merits of the programming itself, the Media Bureau found the programming insufficient because it was aired outside of the core programming hours.  The Media Bureau also concluded that the station had provided inaccurate information on several of the quarterly reports.

In response, the FCC and the station negotiated a Consent Decree under which the station agreed to pay a $30,700 penalty to the U.S. Treasury and implement a three-year compliance plan.  In return, the FCC agreed to terminate its investigation and grant the station’s pending 2014 license renewal application upon timely payment of the penalty, assuming the FCC did not subsequently discover any other “impediments” to license renewal.

Radio Reset: LPFM License Reinstated (for Now) in Consent Decree Over Various Licensing and Underwriting Violations

In response to years of ownership, construction, and other problems that culminated in its license being revoked in 2018, the licensee of an Arizona low power FM (“LPFM”) station entered into a Consent Decree with the Media Bureau and the Enforcement Bureau. Continue reading →

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The next Quarterly Issues/Programs List (“Quarterly List”) must be placed in stations’ Public Inspection Files by October 10, 2019, reflecting information for the months of July, August and September 2019.

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 October 10, 2019, covering the period from July 1, 2019 through September 30, 2019. Continue reading →

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Full power commercial and noncommercial radio stations and LPFM stations licensed to communities in Alabama and Georgia must begin airing pre-filing license renewal announcements on October 1, 2019. 

License renewal applications for these stations, and for in-state FM translator stations, are due by December 1, 2019.  Note that because this filing deadline falls on a weekend, submission of the license renewal application may be made on December 2.  However, the post-filing license renewal announcement for that day (discussed below) must still be made on December 1.

Full power commercial and noncommercial radio and LPFM stations must air four pre-filing announcements alerting the public to the upcoming renewal application filing.  As a result, these radio stations must air the first pre-filing renewal announcement on October 1. The remaining pre-filing announcements must air once a day on October 16, November 1, and November 16, for a total of four announcements.  At least two of these four announcements must air between 7:00 am and 9:00 am and/or 4:00 pm and 6:00 pm.

The text of the pre-filing announcement is as follows:

On [date of last renewal grant], [call letters] was granted a license by the Federal Communications Commission to serve the public interest as a public trustee until April 1, 2020.  [Stations that have not received a renewal grant since the filing of their previous renewal application should modify the foregoing to read: “(Call letters) is licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to serve the public interest as a public trustee.”]

Our license will expire on April 1, 2020.  We must file an application for renewal with the FCC by December 1, 2019.  When filed, a copy of this application will be available for public inspection at www.fcc.gov.  It contains information concerning this station’s performance during the last eight years [or other period of time covered by the application, if the station’s license term was not a standard eight-year license term].  Individuals who wish to advise the FCC of facts relating to our renewal application and to whether this station has operated in the public interest should file comments and petitions with the FCC by March 1, 2019.

Further information concerning the FCC’s broadcast license renewal process is available at [address of location of the station][1] or may be obtained from the FCC, Washington, DC 20554, www.fcc.gov.

If a station misses airing an announcement, it should broadcast a make-up announcement as soon as possible and contact counsel to further address the situation.  Special rules apply to noncommercial educational stations that do not normally operate during any month when their announcements would otherwise be due to air, as well as to other silent stations. These stations should also contact counsel regarding how to give the required public notice.

Post-Filing License Renewal Announcements

Once the license renewal application has been filed, full power commercial and noncommercial radio and LPFM stations must broadcast six post-filing renewal announcements.  These announcements must air, once per day, on December 1 and December 16, 2019, as well as January 1, January 16, February 1, and February 16, 2020.  At least three of these announcements must air between 7:00 am and 9:00 am and/or 4:00 pm and 6:00 pm.  At least one announcement must air in each of the following time periods: between 9:00 am and noon, between noon and 4:00 pm, and between 7:00 pm and midnight.

The text of the post-filing announcement is as follows: Continue reading →

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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.

October 1 is the deadline for broadcast stations licensed to communities in Alaska, American Samoa, Florida, Guam, Hawaii, Iowa, the Mariana Islands, Missouri, Oregon, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Washington 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 submit their two most recent EEO Public File Reports along with FCC Form 2100, Schedule 396 as part of their license renewal application submissions due on October 1.

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. As discussed below, nonexempt SEUs must submit to the FCC their two most recent Annual EEO Public File Reports when they file their license renewal applications.

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, October 1, 2019 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 Rule, 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 otherwise part of a Nonexempt SEU, it must prepare an Annual EEO Public File Report and place it in the station records file.

These Reports will cover the period from October 1, 2018 through September 30, 2019. However, Nonexempt SEUs may “cut off” the reporting period up to ten days before September 30, so long as they begin the next annual reporting period on the day after the cut-off date used in the immediately preceding Report. For example, if the Nonexempt SEU uses the period October 1, 2018 through September 21, 2019 for this year’s report (cutting it off up to ten days prior to September 30, 2019), then next year, the Nonexempt SEU must use a period beginning September 22, 2019 for its report. Continue reading →

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Earlier today, the FCC released a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture against CBS for false EAS alerting, which is FCC-speak for “CBS, tell us why we shouldn’t fine you $272,000 for airing a fake EAS alert tone.”  We’ve written on a number of occasions about FCC fines for airing false EAS alert tones (see, for example, here, here and here).  We’ve also written about false EAS alerts that were unintentionally aired, with my personal favorite in that category being EAS Alerts and the Zombie Apocalypse Make Skynet a Reality.  However, fines for airing false EAS tones have become sufficiently common in recent years that we have largely stopped writing about them.

Today’s decision was a bit different, however.  Section 11.45 of the FCC’s Rules provides that “No person may transmit or cause to transmit the EAS codes or Attention Signal, or a recording or simulation thereof, in any circumstance other than in an actual National, State or Local Area emergency or authorized test of the EAS….” False EAS alerts have typically popped up in commercials as a way of getting jaded viewers’ and listeners’ attention, which makes them challenging to successfully defend.  After all, the advertiser in that scenario is typically counting on the alert tone to draw attention to the ad for reasons entirely unconnected to public safety.  While the advertiser might claim that this prohibition violates its First Amendment rights, that’s not likely a winning argument since commercial speech receives reduced First Amendment protection (which is why, for example, the Federal Trade Commission can prohibit false advertising).

But what happens when the use of the alert tone is not in an ad?  In the case of CBS, the FCC succinctly describes the offending content (which you can also view here) as:

CBS admits that it transmitted the program Young Sheldon on April 12, 2018, which included a “tornado warning sound effect integral to a story line about a family’s visceral reaction to a life‐threatening emergency and how surviving a tornado changed family relationships.”

While the FCC acknowledged that CBS made efforts to ensure the tone was a simulation that did not trigger EAS equipment, the FCC noted that Section 11.45 still prohibits simulations of an EAS tone.  Among other defenses CBS raised in response to the FCC’s assertion that the broadcast violated Section 11.45, it argued that no viewer would be so confused as to think it was a real emergency, and that the broadcast is protected by the First Amendment to boot.  That’s where this case gets interesting.

The FCC is effectively claiming that CBS falsely yelled “fire” in a crowded theater, which is the well-established exception to First Amendment protections.  CBS, on the other hand, is countering that it only yelled “boogeyman”, and that any reasonable viewer isn’t going to panic, because the public knows the difference between real and fictional things.

For students of the First Amendment, the part that first catches the eye is the absolutism of the Commission’s decision.  Only very rarely does the First Amendment permit blanket bans on particular speech in all circumstances.  While you may be prosecuted for yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, you can, for example, say it if you are in command of a firing squad.

The FCC’s treatment of the EAS tone as sacrosanct admittedly makes it difficult for a drama to realistically depict an emergency and people’s reaction to it.  Whenever a particular type of content is forbidden in all circumstances except where the government specifically authorizes it, First Amendment issues inevitably arise.

In today’s decision, the FCC presented three reasons to justify the blanket prohibition.  These would be to “(1) prevent consumer confusion at the moment of a broadcast of the Tones, (2) prevent the inadvertent technical triggering of additional EAS warnings, and (3) prevent the accretion of non-emergency uses of the Tones that will dull consumers’ attentiveness to the public-safety import of the sounds.”  While the FCC had to concede that CBS’s efforts to modify the tone had been successful in preventing the triggering of additional EAS warnings, it was not convinced that consumer confusion could not have occurred, and was certainly concerned about the public getting alert fatigue.

But it’s not really the fact that the FCC rejected CBS’s arguments that is of interest to broadcasters, but how it was done.  First, the Commission noted the now archaic (but admittedly not yet overruled) court precedent that content on broadcast stations receives a lower level of First Amendment protection than all other media.  Whether that still makes sense in the modern era, the FCC’s argument creates the very real possibility that false EAS alert tones could be forbidden on broadcast TV, where the legal standard of First Amendment review is “intermediate scrutiny”, but be constitutionally protected on cable TV, where restrictions on content must meet the far tighter “strict scrutiny” standard.  Since EAS alerts are also transmitted by cable systems, however, the risk of public confusion and alert fatigue is the same on cable as it is on broadcast TV.  That raises the question of how strong the government’s interest in prohibiting false EAS alert tone simulations on broadcast TV can be if those same false alert tones might be constitutionally protected on cable TV programs.

Seeing that trap, the FCC tried to avoid it by arguing that even though First Amendment protections are reduced for CBS as a broadcaster, it doesn’t matter, because the government’s interest in preventing public confusion and alert fatigue is so compelling as to survive strict scrutiny under the First Amendment, allowing the rule to also be enforced against cable TV providers.

Public safety can certainly be a compelling government interest.  However, to survive strict scrutiny, a regulation must also be “narrowly tailored” to further the government’s compelling interest, and be the “least restrictive means” for doing so.  A blanket government ban on using even a simulation of the EAS tone would probably have a tough time surviving strict scrutiny under the First Amendment, but if the FCC could argue to a court that there is something uniquely valuable about the public hearing the tone only when there is an actual emergency, a court might well agree.

But that’s where the FCC may have undercut its own argument.  In July 2018, the FCC modified its rules to allow the airing of “the EAS Attention Signal and a simulation of the EAS codes as provided by FEMA” where they are used in EAS Public Service Announcements provided by “federal, state, and local government entities or non-governmental organizations, to raise public awareness about emergency alerting.”  To avoid confusion, such messages must state that the tone is being presented in the context of a PSA for the purpose of educating the public about EAS.

It would be challenging for the FCC to successfully argue in court that a single use of a simulated EAS tone creates listener fatigue when it has just authorized unlimited use of the actual tone in PSAs.  Similarly, the FCC weakened its argument that any non-emergency use of the tone inevitably leads to public confusion, when, by requiring the PSAs to contain a disclaimer letting the public know it is not an emergency, the FCC concedes that it is possible to present the tone (or a simulation thereof) in a manner that does not confuse the public.

That would seem to make it a a finding of fact as to whether a particular use of a simulated tone is likely to cause public confusion versus public education, and to be candid, a dramatic representation of a family reacting to an EAS tone probably conveys the importance of the tone far better than a PSA that most viewers will fast-forward past (or miss while getting a sandwich).  Admittedly, that is a slippery slope, but First Amendment analysis perpetually lives on that slope.

Regardless of how a court might balance these competing interests, the real irony of the whole affair is that Young Sheldon is set in Texas circa 1989-90.  The Emergency Alert System was not activated until 1997, meaning that a realistic portrayal of a tornado watch in 1990 would have featured the much different twin-frequency monotone Attention Signal of the earlier Emergency Broadcast System.  What’s the irony, you say?  The FCC’s restrictions on using the EBS tone outside of an emergency were eliminated twenty years ago.  Young Sheldon could have been both historically accurate and FCC-compliant had it just used the EBS tone instead.

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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:

  • Big-4 Network, Among Others, Settles With FCC Over Emergency Alert Tone Violations
  • Despite Self-Disclosure, Sponsorship ID Violations Land $233,000 Proposed Fine
  • Topeka TV Licensee Enters Into Consent Decree Over Late-Filed KidVid Reports

False Alarm: FCC Enters Into Multiple Consent Decrees Over Emergency Alert Tone Violations

In a single day last week, the FCC announced four separate Consent Decrees in response to unauthorized uses of the Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) tone across various media outlets.  The parent companies of a Big-4 broadcast network and two cable channels, as well as the licensee of two southern California FM stations, each agreed to significant payments to settle investigations into violations of the FCC’s EAS rules.  According to the Consent Decrees, unauthorized emergency tones have reached hundreds of millions of Americans in the past two years alone.

The Emergency Alert System is a nationwide warning system operated by the FCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency that allows authorized public agencies to alert the public about urgent situations, including natural disasters and other incidents that require immediate attention.  Once the system is activated, television and radio broadcasters, cable television operators, and other EAS “participants” begin transmitting emergency messages with distinct attention tones.  These tones consist of coded signals that are embedded with information about the emergency and are capable of activating emergency equipment.  Wireless Emergency Alerts (“WEA”), which deliver messages to the public via mobile phones and other wireless devices, also use attention signals.

Emergency tones may not be transmitted except in cases of: (1) actual emergencies; (2) official tests of the emergency system; and (3) authorized public service announcements.  In an accompanying Enforcement Advisory published on the same day as the Consent Decrees, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau noted that wrongful use of the tones can result in false activations of the EAS, as well as “alert fatigue,” in which “the public becomes desensitized to the alerts, leading people to ignore potentially life-saving warnings and information.”

For the Big-4 network, it all started with a joke.  Around the time of last year’s nationwide EAS test, a late-night network talk show parodied the test in a sketch that incorporated emergency tones.  According to the Consent Decree, the network’s programming reaches almost all US television households through hundreds of local television affiliates, as well as through the network’s owned and operated stations.  Shortly after the episode aired, the company removed the offending portions of the program from its website and other streaming sites and did not rebroadcast the episode.  Despite these remedial actions, the damage was already done; in response to the Enforcement Bureau’s investigation, the network’s parent company agreed to pay a $395,000 “civil penalty.”

The parent companies of two major cable channels entered into similar agreements.  In one instance from this past year, an episode of a popular show set in a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic world used simulated EAS tones on multiple occasions over the course of an hour.  That episode was transmitted on eight separate occasions over a two-month period.  According to the Consent Decree, within weeks of the episode’s debut, the Enforcement Bureau reached out to the network regarding the unauthorized uses of the tone and, after a brief investigation, the network’s parent company agreed to pay $104,000 to resolve the matter. Continue reading →

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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:

  • Pennsylvania AM Station’s “Shenanigans” in Connection With Tower Violations Lead to $25,000 Fine
  • Georgia and North Carolina Radio Station Licenses at Risk Due to Unpaid Fees
  • FCC Cites New Jersey Vehicle Equipment Vendor for Programming Transmitters with Unauthorized Frequencies

Pennsylvania Station’s Tower “Shenanigans” Lead to $25,000 Fine

In a recent Forfeiture Order, the FCC fined a Pennsylvania AM radio licensee for various tower-related violations after the licensee failed to sufficiently respond to a 2016 Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (NAL).

Broadcasters must comply with various FCC and FAA rules relating to registration, lighting and painting requirements.  In particular, they must be lit and painted in compliance with FAA requirements, and any extinguished or improperly functioning lights must be reported to the FAA if the problem is not corrected within 30 minutes.  The FCC’s Rules require lighting repairs to be made “as soon as practicable.”

In 2015, FCC Enforcement Bureau agents responded to an anonymous complaint regarding a pair of radio towers.  Over multiple site visits, the agents determined that multiple mandatory tower lights and beacons were unlit and that the towers’ paint was chipping and faded to such a degree that the towers did not have good visibility.  In connection with the lighting problems, the licensee had also failed to timely file the required “Notice to Airmen” with the FAA, which informs aircraft pilots of potential hazards along their flight route.  The FCC cited these issues in a February 2016 Notice of Violation sent to the station.  The licensee responded by assuring the FCC that it would immediately undertake remedial actions.  However, a site visit from the FCC several months later revealed continuing violations, and the FCC subsequently issued the $25,000 NAL along with directions on how to respond.

At that point, the licensee’s woes expanded from substantive to procedural.  According to a Forfeiture Order, the licensee failed to file a “proper response” to the NAL.  Instead, in a bizarre series of events that the FCC chalked up to “shenanigans,” it noted that the licensee submitted a Petition for Reconsideration of the NAL, as well as a response to the NAL to the Office of Managing Director (OMD), instead of to the Enforcement Bureau.  OMD is a separate department within the FCC that deals with agency administrative matters, such as budgets, human resources, scheduling, and document distribution.  OMD subsequently returned the Petition and the NAL response to the licensee with a letter noting the licensee’s procedural misstep.

The licensee’s “shenanigans” were still far from over, however.  More than a month after OMD returned the licensee’s submissions, the licensee sent a letter to the Enforcement Bureau seeking to arrange an installment plan for the $25,000 proposed fine.  This, too, was procedurally flawed, as the NAL specifically explained that any requests for payment plans must be directed to the FCC’s Chief Financial Officer, not to the Enforcement Bureau.  Though the Enforcement Bureau itself forwarded the request to the CFO’s office, no plan was ever put in place.

According to the Forfeiture Order, despite the licensee’s various filings, it failed to successfully submit a response to the NAL to the Enforcement Bureau.  The Forfeiture Order also noted that even had the licensee’s NAL response been sent to the Enforcement Bureau (instead of OMD), it would have been defective for being late-filed.  The Enforcement Bureau therefore affirmed the proposed fine and ordered the licensee to pay the $25,000 fine within 30 days.

Pay to Play: FCC Initiates Proceedings Against North Carolina and Georgia Radio Stations Over Delinquent Fees

In a pair of Orders to Pay or to Show Cause released on the same day, the FCC began proceedings to potentially revoke the AM radio license of a Georgia station and the FM radio license of a North Carolina station. Continue reading →

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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.

August 1 is the deadline for broadcast stations licensed to communities in California, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin 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 submit their two most recent EEO Public File Reports along with FCC Form 2100, Schedule 396 as part of their license renewal application submissions due on August 1.

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. As discussed below, nonexempt SEUs must submit to the FCC their two most recent Annual EEO Public File Reports when they file their license renewal applications.

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, August 1, 2019 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 Rule, 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 otherwise part of a Nonexempt SEU, it must prepare an Annual EEO Public File Report and place it in the station records file.

These Reports will cover the period from August 1, 2018 through July 31, 2019. However, Nonexempt SEUs may “cut off” the reporting period up to ten days before July 31, so long as they begin the next annual reporting period on the day after the cut-off date used in the immediately preceding Report. For example, if the Nonexempt SEU uses the period August 1, 2018 through July 22, 2019 for this year’s report (cutting it off up to ten days prior to July 31, 2019), then next year, the Nonexempt SEU must use a period beginning July 23, 2019 for its report. Continue reading →