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.
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 →
If trying to maintain the required paperwork for political advertising aired by your station gives you a headache, prepare for a migraine of biblical proportions.
With the departure of Commissioner Rosenworcel leaving the FCC in a 2-2 partisan split, there are really only two types of broadcast orders coming out of the FCC these days—those having the unanimous support of all four remaining commissioners, and those that can be done by the Media Bureau on delegated authority with or without the support of the two Republican commissioners. That was evidenced twice last week. The first was the Media Bureau’s rejection of various petitions seeking reconsideration of increased ownership reporting requirements for noncommercial stations. That action generated an immediate response from Republican commissioners Pai and O’Rielly, who released a joint statement chiding the Media Bureau for taking the action right before the FCC changes control, and encouraging the rejected petitioners to appeal the decision to the full Commission for reversal:
The Commission’s ruling no longer enjoys the support of the majority of Commissioners—nor is there a majority that supports today’s Media Bureau decision—so it was wrong for the Bureau to bypass Commissioners and reaffirm these reporting requirements unilaterally. . . . The good news is that today’s decision need not be the final word. We encourage public broadcasters to file an application for review so that the newly constituted Commission will have an opportunity to revisit this matter. It is pointless to require board members of NCE stations to report sensitive personal information (like the last four digits of individual Social Security numbers) to the Commission and will only serve to discourage these volunteers from serving their communities.
We might now be headed down a similar path with the political file. This past Friday evening, the Media Bureau released an Order expanding the recordkeeping associated with airing political advertising. Perhaps simply an error, but contributing to the appearance that the Order was rushed out to beat the change in administrations, is the fact that the formatting and text of the Friday night version deteriorates badly in the last third of the Order, with no text at all in the last 49 footnotes, the paragraph numbering changing, and the text of some paragraphs being in bold type and/or all capitals. The cleaned up version can now be found here. The Order responds to complaints filed by activist groups against eleven different stations owned by a Who’s Who of television broadcasters, with the FCC admonishing nine of the eleven stations for political ad recordkeeping violations. A separate order admonishing a twelfth station in response to a more recent complaint was also released Friday night.
But why would an order admonishing stations for alleged recordkeeping violations (which originated from complaints sitting at the FCC since mid-2014) need to be rushed out? Perhaps because it also “clarifies” that the admittedly vague rules on political ad recordkeeping require much more expansive political file records than most anyone has previously suggested (at least anyone who wasn’t trying to use the records for other than their intended purpose; for example, as a proxy for overall political ad expenditures). The clarifications apply not just to broadcasters, but to cable, DBS, and satellite radio providers as well.
Read without an understanding of the current political ad landscape, the clarifications probably seem dryly mundane. They include the following: Continue reading →
Consumer protection is always in style at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC”). When 50 fashion “influencers” flooded Instagram, all wearing the same dress in photos tagged “@lordandtaylor”, and an article featuring the same dress appeared in the online fashion magazine Nylon, some at the FTC suspected an advertising campaign masquerading as a social media dialogue. While this matter arose in a “new media” context, and therefore impacts all businesses’ online activities, broadcasters are doubly affected—online and on-air—by the FTC’s action.
As we describe in more detail in our Client Advisory Lord and Taylor Case Shows the Importance of Transparency in Advertising, the FTC’s investigation into a supposedly viral phenomenon unveiled an integrated advertising campaign. Among other things, Lord & Taylor formally contracted with fashion influencers, giving them the dress for free and compensating them to “product bomb” Instagram with photos of themselves wearing the dress on one particular weekend. Lord & Taylor approved the influencers’ posts and required them to include the @lordandtaylor tag and #DesignLab hashtag. Lord & Taylor also contracted with Nylon to run an article about its new Design Lab collection, featuring the dress in the article and on Nylon’s Instagram page as well. Again, Lord & Taylor reviewed the content before it was published. However, Lord & Taylor did not require the influencers or Nylon to disclose their connection to Lord & Taylor or that they had been compensated for posting the photos and comments.
In December 2015, the FTC released its Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements. The Policy Statement provides an overview of how the FTC intends to apply its consumer protection principles to “native advertising”—online advertising material that resembles editorial content, product reviews, or other content which could mislead consumers into believing that the advertising isn’t really advertising. It also notes some factors that have contributed to a rise in native advertising online, such as the increased ability of publishers to quickly and cheaply reformat and reuse content, evolving business models around monetization of content, and the ability of consumers to skip or block ads placing pressure on advertisers to capture consumers’ attention. However, the Policy Statement concludes that “[a]lthough digital media has expanded and changed the way marketers reach consumers, all advertisers, including digital advertisers, must comply with the same legal principles regarding deceptive conduct the Commission has long enforced.”
In setting out what those legal principles are, the FTC referred back to many cases involving a wide variety of media, including television infomercials that blurred the line between advertising and editorial content. The FTC brought numerous cases in the 1980s and 1990s against infomercials that looked like investigative news reports or consumer product review content and required the addition of conspicuous “PAID ADVERTISEMENT” disclosures at the beginning and throughout the program where product ordering information was presented.
The FTC’s approach to digital marketing is similar. In its Native Advertising: A Guide For Businesses released along with the December Policy Statement, the FTC noted “[t]he more a native ad is similar in format and topic to content on the publisher’s site, the more likely that a disclosure will be necessary to prevent deception.” In the Lord & Taylor case, the Nylon article used language similar to traditional editorial content recommending certain fashion choices. Specifically, it stated: “[W]e’re taking out the guess work and introducing you to spring’s must-have line: Lord & Taylor’s Design Lab.” The FTC faulted Lord & Taylor for not requiring a disclosure that the article was paid-for advertising.
In addition, the FTC’s updated Endorsement Guides published in 2009 require that when advertisers recruit endorsers and provide them with free merchandise or other compensation, they must require their endorsers to clearly and conspicuously disclose their connection to the advertiser and, further, to monitor those endorsements for accuracy and inclusion of the required disclosure language. Here, while Lord & Taylor did review and even edit the endorsements, it did not require any disclosure of the endorser’s relationship with Lord & Taylor. We have written extensively about the Endorsement Guides and how they apply to broadcasters, including common situations that arise in on-air “banter”, here and here.
As a result of its investigation into Lord & Taylor’s advertising of the Design Lab line, the FTC and Lord & Taylor agreed to a settlement which imposes a number of conditions beyond mere compliance on Lord & Taylor going forward. These include filing various reports with the FTC, preserving documents for later FTC review should it be necessary, and providing copies of the settlement agreement to all those who have anything to do with creating similar advertising campaigns. The case is an important reminder to all advertisers that, as the FTC has said, “[r]egardless of the medium in which an advertising or promotional message is disseminated, deception occurs when consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances are misled about its nature or source, and such misleading impression is likely to affect their decisions or conduct regarding the advertised product or the advertising.”
Do your online and on-air promotions meet this test?
The FCC’s new Licensee-Conducted Contest Rule became effective this past Friday. Under the new rule, a broadcast licensee conducting a contest still has the obligation to disclose the material terms of the contest “fully and accurately” and to conduct the contest substantially as announced. However, as we wrote last September, the new rule allows broadcasters to meet these requirements by posting the contest terms on their websites rather than reading them on-air. To take advantage of this new flexibility, broadcasters must:
- Post the terms on the station’s or licensee’s website, or if neither the station nor the licensee has a website, on a free website that is available to the public 24/7, without registration;
- Broadcast the website address with sufficient information for a consumer to find the terms easily, using simple instructions or natural language;
- Broadcast the website address periodically throughout the term of the contest;
- Establish a conspicuous link or tab on the home page of the website that takes consumers to the contest terms;
- Maintain the terms on the website for at least 30 days after the contest has ended and conspicuously mark those that are expired, including the date a winner was selected;
- On the rare occasions that a change in terms occurs during the contest, announce the changes on-air within 24 hours and periodically thereafter, and direct participants to the written terms on the website; and
- Assure that the contest rules posted online conform to those announced on-air.
The effective date of the new rule has been eagerly anticipated by broadcasters as the change grants them more flexibility in announcing contest terms, avoids long and complicated contest announcements on-air, and permits participants to review the rules at their leisure. However, in making the change, the FCC noted that “[a]s with all elements of contest-related announcements, the burden is on the broadcaster to inform the public, not on the public to discern the message.”
Indeed, the law views the rules of a contest or sweepstakes to be a contract between the sponsor (station) and anyone who enters the contest, or even anyone who tries to enter and fails to do so successfully. If the sum total of your on-air contest rules are “be the 103rd caller after X song is played” and a vague “station policy” somewhere on the website that says you can only win once every 30 days, you have left a lot out of your “contract.” For example, when a station ran a contest on-air like the one above and did not get many callers, the DJ simply awarded the prize to the last person to call in after hours of trying to attract more callers. The station was fined by the FCC because it did not run the contest substantially as advertised. Properly written contest rules should account for such situations, as well as other foreseeable developments, such as the phone lines going down after the trigger song has been played. A station with contest rules that don’t address likely (or even unlikely) contest developments is inviting challenges from both contestants and regulators.
In that regard, as we noted in FCC Proposes to Clear Airwaves of Boring Contest Disclosures, But State Issues Remain, stations should remember that the FCC is not the only regulator watching out for contest and sweepstakes violations. For example, some states’ contest laws require that all announced prizes be awarded in order to prevent “bait and switch” contests. For stations giving away “time sensitive” prizes such as concert tickets that have to be used on a specific date, the rules should address the situation where a winner is chosen but then turns down the prize or simply does not claim it because they cannot attend on the date specified. If the rules say that an alternate winner will be chosen after 10 days, there may not be enough time left before the concert to award the prize. The station with poorly written contest rules must then choose between violating the law by failing to award a prize, or violating the law by failing to conduct the contest in accordance with the announced rules. Badly-drafted contest rules are a liability for any business, but are worse for broadcasters, as in addition to all of the state and federal laws governing contests, broadcasters are uniquely subject to the FCC’s contest oversight as well.
Finally, while you might imagine that contest complaints come from those who lost the contest (and indeed they often do), many come from contest winners. While professional contestants who enter every contest will complain about the valuation placed on a prize for tax purposes, first-time winners are more likely to complain about having to sign a release to claim the prize, or where the prize is large, having to provide the station with their Social Security Number, appear in person, or attend a further event, such as the day when all the winners of keys must try them out in the grand prize car. These obligations need to be clear in the contest rules, not just to avoid liability, but to ensure the station is able to get the promotional value it anticipated from the contest. Contestants who demand anonymity and refuse to sign releases greatly undercut the promotional value of a big contest.
The bottom line is, now that the FCC will let you post your rules online for contestants and regulators to scrutinize, you need to ensure you have rules that can withstand scrutiny.
I wrote in March of last year that the FCC had proposed fines of $1,120,000 against Viacom, $530,000 against NBCUniversal, and $280,000 against ESPN for airing ads for the movie Olympus Has Fallen that promoted the movie with an EAS alert tone. Seven Viacom cable networks aired the spot a total of 108 times, seven NBCUniversal cable networks aired it a total of 38 times, and ESPN aired it a total of 13 times on three cable networks.
According to the FCC, NBC elected to pay its $530,000 fine shortly thereafter and call it a day, but Viacom and ESPN challenged their respective fines, arguing that the fines should be rescinded or reduced because:
- as programmers, Viacom and ESPN lacked adequate notice that Section 11.45 of the FCC’s Rules (the prohibition on false EAS tones) and Section 325 of the Communications Act (the prohibition on false distress signals) applied to them;
- the prohibition on false EAS tones does not apply to intermediary program distributors, as opposed to broadcast stations and cable systems that transmit directly to the public;
- the use of the EAS tone in the ad was not deceptive as it was clear from the context that it was not an actual EAS alert; and
- Viacom and ESPN did not knowingly violate the prohibition on transmitting false EAS tones.
In an Order released earlier today, the FCC rejected these arguments, noting that Section 325 of the Communications Act and Section 11.45 of the FCC’s Rules are not new, and that they apply to all “persons” who transmit false EAS tones, not just to broadcasters and cable/satellite system operators. The FCC found that transmission of the network content to cable and satellite systems for distribution to subscribers constituted “transmission” of false EAS tones sufficient to trigger a violation of the rule. In reaching this conclusion, the FCC noted that both Viacom and ESPN had reviewed the ad before it was aired and had the contractual right to reject an ad that didn’t comply with law, but had failed to do so. The FCC also concluded that it was irrelevant whether the use of the EAS tone was deceptive, as the law prohibits any use of the tone except in an actual emergency or test of the system.
In line with many prior FCC enforcement decisions, the FCC found the violations to be “willful” on the grounds that it did not matter whether the parties transmitting the ads knew they were violating a law, only that they intended to air the ads, which neither party disputed. The FCC summed up its position by noting that it “has consistently held that ignorance or mistake of law are not exculpating or mitigating factors when assessing a forfeiture.”
While Viacom and ESPN also challenged the sheer size of the fines, the FCC noted that the base fine for false EAS tone violations is $8,000, and that in assessing the appropriate fines here, it took into account “(1) the number of networks over which the transmissions occurred; (2) the number of repetitions (i.e., the number of individual transmissions); (3) the duration of the violation (i.e., the number of days over which the violation occurred); (4) the audience reach of the transmissions (e.g., nationwide, regional, or local); and (5) the extent of the public safety impact (e.g., whether an EAS activation was triggered).” Because there were “multiple violations over multiple days on multiple networks, with the number of transmissions doubled on some networks due to the separate East Coast and West Coast programming feeds,” the FCC concluded the size of the fines was appropriate.
In describing more precisely its reasoning for the outsize fines, the FCC’s Order stated:
As the rule clearly applies to each transmission, each separate transmission represents a separate violation and Viacom cites no authority to the contrary. Moreover, the vast audience reach of each Company’s programming greatly increased the extent and gravity of the violations. Given the public safety implications raised by the transmissions, and for the reasons set forth in the [Notice of Apparent Liability], we find that the instant violations, due to their egregiousness, warrant the upwardly adjusted forfeiture amounts detailed by the Commission.
Finally, to buttress its argument for such large fines, the FCC pulled out its “ability to pay” card, noting the multi-billion dollar revenues of the companies involved and stating that “entities with substantial revenues, such as the Companies, may expect the imposition of forfeitures well above the base amounts in order to deter improper behavior.”
While today’s Order is not surprising in light of the FCC’s increasingly tough treatment of false EAS tone violations since 2010, it is not all bad news for the media community. To the extent that one of more of the Viacom, ESPN or NBCUniversal networks that transmitted the ads is likely carried by nearly every cable system in the U.S., the FCC could have elected to commence enforcement actions and issue fines against each and every system that failed to delete the offending content before transmitting the network programming to subscribers. Pursuing such fines would be expensive for all affected cable and satellite systems, but particularly devastating for smaller cable systems.
While it is always possible that the FCC could still commence such proceedings, it is notable that the FCC specifically rejected Viacom’s argument that it was unfair for the FCC to fine the networks while not fining the ad agency that created the ad or the cable and satellite systems that actually delivered the ad to subscribers. It therefore appears that, at least for now, the FCC is content to apply pressure where it thinks it will do the most good in terms of avoiding future violations. Should the FCC decide to broaden its enforcement efforts in the future however, we’ll be hearing a lot more about my last post on this subject–ensuring you are contractually indemnified by advertisers for any illegal content in the ads they send you to air.
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:
- Sponsorship Identification Violation Yields $115,000 Civil Penalty
- $13,000 Increase in Fine Upheld for Deliberate and Continued Operation at Unauthorized Location
- FCC Reduces $14,000 Fine for EAS and Power Violations Due to Inability to Pay
FCC Adopts Consent Decree Requiring Licensee to Pay $115,000 Civil Penalty
Earlier this month, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with a Nevada TV station terminating an investigation into violations of the FCC’s sponsorship identification rule.
The FCC’s sponsorship identification rule requires broadcast stations to identify the sponsor of content aired whenever any “money, service, or other valuable consideration” is paid or promised to the station for the broadcast. The FCC has explained that the rule is rooted in the idea that the broadcast audience is “entitled to know who seeks to persuade them.”
In 2009, the FCC received a complaint alleging that an advertising agency in Las Vegas offered to buy air time for commercials if broadcast stations aired news-like programming about automobile liquidation sales events at dealerships. The FCC investigated the complaint and found that the licensee’s TV station accepted payment to air “Special Reports” about the liquidation sales. The “Special Reports” resembled news reports, and featured a station employee playing the role of a television reporter questioning representatives of the dealership about their ongoing sales event.
The licensee acknowledged the applicability of the sponsorship identification rule to the “Special Reports,” but asserted that the context made clear their nature as paid advertisements despite the absence of an explicit announcement. The FCC disagreed, contending that the licensee failed to air required sponsorship announcements for twenty-seven “Special Reports” broadcast by the station from May through August of 2009.
As part of the Consent Decree, the licensee admitted to violating the FCC’s sponsorship identification rule and agreed to (i) pay a civil penalty of $115,000; (ii) develop and implement a Compliance Plan to prevent future violations; and (iii) file Compliance Reports with the FCC annually for the next three years.
FCC Finds That Corrective Actions and Staffing Problems Do Not Merit Reduction of Fine
The FCC imposed a $25,000 fine against a Colorado radio licensee for operating three studio-transmitter links (“STL”) from a location not authorized by their respective FCC licenses.
Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits the use or operation of any apparatus for the transmission of communications signals by radio, except in accordance with the Act and with a license from the FCC. In addition, Section 1.903(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires that stations in the Wireless Radio Services be operated in accordance with the rules applicable to their particular service, and only with a valid FCC authorization.
In August 2012, an agent from the Enforcement Bureau’s Denver Office inspected the STL facilities and found they were operating from a location approximately 0.6 miles from their authorized location. The agent concluded–and the licensee did not dispute– that the STL facilities had been operating at the unauthorized location for five years. A July 2013 follow-up inspection found that the STL facilities continued to operate from the unauthorized location.
Continue reading →
The FCC announced in March of this year that it would begin treating TV Joint Sales Agreements between two local TV stations involving more than 15% of a station’s advertising time as an attributable ownership interest. However, it also announced at that time that it would provide parties to existing JSAs two years from the effective date of the new rule to make any necessary modifications to ensure compliance with the FCC’s multiple ownership rule. As I wrote in June when the new rule went into effect, that made June 19, 2016 the deadline for addressing any issues with existing JSAs.
However, the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 (STELAR) became law on December 4, 2014. While the primary purpose of STELAR was to extend for an additional five years the compulsory copyright license allowing satellite TV providers to import distant network TV signals to their subscribers where no local affiliate is available, as often happens in Congress, a number of unrelated provisions slipped into the bill. One of those provisions extended the JSA grandfathering period by a somewhat imprecise “six months”.
Today, the FCC released a Public Notice announcing that it would deem December 19, 2016 to be the new deadline for making any necessary modifications to existing TV JSAs to ensure compliance with the FCC’s multiple ownership rule. As a result, in those situations where the treatment of a JSA as an attributable ownership interest would create a violation of the FCC’s local ownership limits, the affected broadcaster will need to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that it has remedied that situation by the December 19, 2016 deadline.
Broadcasters let out a small sigh of relief today when the FCC made clear there is no requirement that TV stations have private investigators on staff.
With TV stations’ political files now available online, three political activist organizations have been jointly filing complaints against TV stations alleging various errors and omissions in online public file paperwork relating to political ad buys by third-party advertisers. These three organizations, the Campaign Legal Center, Sunlight Foundation, and Common Cause, expanded their campaign (no pun intended) substantially in mid-July, when they filed complaints against a Washington, DC and a Portland, Oregon TV station. Rather than paperwork problems, however, these complaints claimed that the stations had failed to accurately disclose on-air the true identity of the sponsor behind certain “Super PAC” political ads. In both cases, the complainants asserted that their own research indicated the PACs were mostly or entirely funded by a single individual, and that the stations should have therefore identified that individual rather than the PAC as the sponsor of the political spot.
While there is ample precedent for requiring broadcasters to be comfortable that the sponsorship information in a political spot is accurate, the most recent complaints concerned broadcasters for two reasons. First, there apparently was no question that the PACs had indeed been the ones to write the check for the ads and were valid legal entities, so a TV station altering the sponsorship identification text to specify the station’s opinion as to who the “real” sponsor is raises numerous legal issues, not the least of which is that the station could well get it wrong. For example, it would be a pretty brazen station that would change the sponsorship identification on Microsoft ads to “paid for by Bill Gates” on the theory that Bill Gates was the main “person” behind the organization that wrote the check. Of course, in this example the station would be doubly wrong, as Bill Gates ceased being the largest shareholder of Microsoft in May of this year, demonstrating the risk a station takes in attempting to be the arbiter of who is “behind” an advertiser.
This example also demonstrates the second issue that concerned broadcasters about the complaints. If, in the absence of an obvious sham advertiser, broadcasters had an obligation to ignore the “name on the check” and attempt to discern the actual source of the check writer’s income, they would need a full-time staff of researchers doing nothing but verifying the structure of advertisers. In addition, the airing of political ads would be perpetually delayed while stations seek adequate certainty that they have discerned the true source of all ad funds.
The result would be a no-win situation for broadcasters, who would have to expend enormous resources trying to determine where an advertiser’s money comes from, and having done that, expose themselves to both private liability (from the advertiser who wasn’t credited as the sole sponsor of the spot, as well as from the individual who was) and regulatory liability (if the government disagrees with the licensee’s sponsorship conclusions).
Today, the FCC wisely avoided placing broadcasters in that conundrum, ruling in a letter decision that:
We conclude that the complaints do not provide a sufficient showing that the stations had credible evidence casting into doubt that the identified sponsors of the advertisement were the true sponsors. As the Commission has stated previously, “unless furnished with credible, unrefuted evidence that a sponsor is acting at the direction of a third party, the broadcaster may rely on the plausible assurances of the person(s) paying for the time that they are the true sponsor.” While the complaint against [the station] presented some evidence that station employees may have come across facts in the course of news reporting on political issues that could have raised questions in their minds concerning the relationship of NextGen Climate Action Committee and Tom Steyer, we exercise our discretion not to pursue enforcement in this instance, given the need to balance the “reasonable diligence” obligations of broadcasters in identifying the sponsor of an advertisement with the sensitive First Amendment interests present here.
While it is reassuring that the FCC moved quickly to reject the complaints, today’s action leaves the political sponsorship identification waters somewhat murky. In addition to the less than comforting “we exercise our discretion not to pursue enforcement in this instance” language, the FCC proceeded to state that “[o]ur approach might have been different if the complainants had approached the stations directly to furnish them with evidence calling into question that the identified sponsors were the true sponsors.” In using this language, the FCC suggests that the only problem with the complaints “might have been” that the complainants didn’t present their evidence to the stations while the spots were still airing so that the stations could have assessed the evidence at the time and decided whether to modify the sponsorship identification.
While that ruling is generally consistent with past FCC rulings, in that a broadcaster must be presented with “credible, unrefuted evidence that a sponsor is acting at the direction of a third party,” the FCC sidestepped the equally important issue of when a PAC’s sponsorship identification may be deemed adequate, or if PAC contributors must be listed instead. As a result, broadcasters are left wondering if a sponsorship identification will be second-guessed when 80%, 90%, 95%, 99%, or some other percentage of the sponsor’s income comes from one source. Similarly, what if only 50% comes from one individual, but the other 50% comes from another individual, and the two are say, brothers? Once again, broadcasters are being asked, on pain of liability, to make disclosure decisions for PACs that are more correctly the province of the Federal Election Commission.
Of course, the sponsorship identification requirement is not limited to political ads, and the flaws in the approach suggested by the complainants seem jarringly obvious when applied in the context of a business advertiser. For example, should ads for every Mom and Pop business disclose that the real sponsor is not the business, but Mom and Pop, who gave up their vacation this year in order for the business to be able to afford broadcast advertising? Similarly, if it is not the entity writing the check for advertising that is relevant, but the principal source of its income, shouldn’t all ads placed by defense contractors need to disclose the U.S. government as the actual sponsor of their ads?
On the other hand, if, as the FCC has suggested in past sponsorship decisions, the real issue is the identity of the decision maker for that advertiser, how could a broadcaster ever know that information with adequate certainty to reject the assurances of the advertiser and take on the liability of unilaterally changing sponsorship identifications in ads?
To be clear, no one is suggesting that a sponsor should be able to avoid on-air attribution by creating a phony front organization whose faux nature is obvious to all, including the broadcaster. However, a Political Action Committee is an entity legally recognized under the law, which is also regulated by law. If more information about its contributors is deemed a public good, Congress and the Federal Election Commission have the authority and the responsibility to take action to accomplish that result. In the absence of such action, the task should not fall to broadcasters by default.
After Monday’s FCC meeting left television broadcasters facing higher expenses and lower revenues by restricting the use of Joint Sales Agreements and joint retransmission negotiations, broadcasters were due for some good news. Where the FCC is the bearer of bad news, it has often fallen to the courts to be the bearer of good news, generally by overruling the adverse FCC decision. Unfortunately, that process can take years, meaning that in Washington you have to take a very long term view of “the good outweighs the bad.”
This week, however, the FCC’s bad news was followed very quickly by the Supreme Court’s decision today in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. In McCutcheon, the Court ruled that while limits on political contributions to individual candidates continue to be permissible, overall limits on contributions to candidates and party committees are unconstitutional. In other words, the government can limit how much you donate to an individual candidate or party committee, but cannot limit the number of candidates or party committees you support with your donations.
While campaign finance reform will continue to be a hot-button issue, a direct effect of today’s decision will be to increase the war chests of candidates and parties through greater political donations. Much of those increased funds will ultimately be used for political advertising, redounding to the benefit of media in general, but particularly to local broadcasters.
The Court’s 5-4 decision was not particularly a surprise, as many saw McCutcheon as the sequel to 2010’s Citizens United decision, in which the Court found restrictions on political expenditures by corporations and unions to be unconstitutional. When the Supreme Court released its decision in Citizens United, we all understood the immediate financial implications for media, but no one was quite sure just how great that impact would be. It turned out to be very substantial, completing the multi-decade transition of political advertising from being a “not worth the regulatory headaches” obligation of broadcasters to now being a highly sought after segment of the overall advertising market. Indeed, there is no stronger validation of this than the fact that cash flow multiples used in station acquisitions are based on two-year averages, balancing political year revenue with revenue from a non-political year.
As in 2010, the question is not whether today’s decision will result in more ad revenue for media outlets, but how much more. Given that in recent years the number of donors bumping up against the now-unconstitutional cap measured in the hundreds rather than the thousands, the economic impact of today’s decision is unlikely to match that of Citizens United. However, it may have a more interesting effect. The limit on overall donations effectively forced a political contributor to pick and choose a small number of candidates to support with the maximum ($2600 at the moment) donation, and to turn away others because of the cap. The practical result was that donors tended to focus their contributions on candidates in hotly contested races where the contribution could have the most impact.
With today’s elimination of the overall cap, a donor can make the maximum individual donation to every federal political candidate it wishes to support. The likely result is an increased flow of political contributions to candidates in races previously deemed to be lost causes, creating tighter races through the influx of political ad dollars.
From a political standpoint, this means the number of hotly contested races around the country will increase. From an economic standpoint, it means political ad dollars will flow on a more geographically diverse basis, ensuring that a larger number of local stations benefit, rather than just those in swing states and swing districts. This will be welcome news for stations that previously found themselves missing out on political ad dollars while candidates and parties flung large sums at stations in nearby swing districts. By itself, it may not entirely remove the sting of Monday’s FCC actions, but given enough time, the courts may eventually produce some good news in that regard as well.