Articles Posted in FCC Enforcement

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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:

  • Violations of the Live Broadcasting Rule Lead to $50,000 Consent Decree
  • Decision Affirming Dismissal of Mississippi Station’s License Renewal Application Highlights Intricacies of License Renewal Process
  • FCC Reversal Leads to Reinstatement of Georgia Radio Station’s License

Is This Live?  California Broadcaster Settles with FCC Over Violations of the Live Broadcasting Rule

The FCC recently entered into a Consent Decree with a large California-based radio broadcaster for violating the FCC’s rule prohibiting the broadcast of prerecorded programming that “creates the impression that it is occurring live” (often referred to as the “live broadcasting rule”).  This settlement represents the first time the FCC has publicly enforced the rule in recent years.

According to the FCC, the live broadcasting rule is effectively a consumer protection rule that ensures viewers are not misled into believing that a program is live when it is not.  Under Section 73.1208 of the FCC’s Rules, where “time is of special significance” to the program material aired, or “an affirmative attempt is made to create the impression that [the program material] is occurring simultaneously with the broadcast,” broadcasters must disclose if the program was previously taped, filmed, or recorded.  Such disclosure must be made at the beginning of the broadcast “in terms commonly understood by the public”.  The live broadcasting rule does not extend to prerecorded commercial, promotional, or public service programming.

The FCC began its investigation after receiving a complaint alleging that one of the broadcaster’s Los Angeles-area AM stations was airing a call-in show with the word “Live” in its title even though the show was actually prerecorded.  The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau responded by directing a Letter of Inquiry to the station’s licensee seeking additional information about the program.  In response, the licensee admitted the broadcast had indeed been prerecorded and that at several times during the broadcast, the program’s host had suggested that he was taking listener calls live over the air.  The licensee acknowledged that even though the program created the impression that the broadcast was live, the station under investigation, as well as other commonly-controlled stations that broadcast the same program, had failed to make the required disclaimer.

To resolve the investigation, the licensee’s parent company entered into a Consent Decree with the Enforcement Bureau.  Under the terms of that agreement, the company: (1) agreed to pay a $50,000 civil penalty; (2) admitted to violating the live broadcasting rule; and (3) must implement a three-year compliance plan to prevent future violations.  Considering the costly penalty, broadcasters should be wary when airing prerecorded programming, taking care to determine whether the audience needs to be informed of that fact.

Undisclosed Death of Mississippi Radio Station Owner Ends in Non-Renewal of License

In a recent Memorandum Opinion and Order (“Order”), the FCC denied an Application for Review which challenged the dismissal of a Mississippi AM station’s 2012 license renewal application.  The application had failed to disclose that the station’s licensee had previously died, and unsurprisingly, also failed to include the deceased licensee’s signature.

The years-long saga began in January 2011 following the death of the station’s licensee.  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:

  • Arkansas University’s Underwriting Violations Lead to $76,000 Consent Decree
  • Large TV Broadcaster Agrees to Pay $1.3 Million Over Predecessor’s Tower Compliance Problems
  • Recent Fine Cancellations Prompt Broadcasters to Double-Check Fees and Fines

A Word From Our Sponsors: Arkansas University Settles With FCC Over Underwriting Violations

The FCC recently entered into a Consent Decree with an Arkansas university for violating the FCC’s underwriting rules for noncommercial stations.  The university admitted that two of its FM stations aired announcements over several days in 2016 that impermissibly promoted the products or services of its financial contributors.  The two stations are operated by a community college under the University’s control.

Noncommercial educational (“NCE”) broadcast stations are prohibited from airing promotional announcements on behalf of for-profit entities in exchange for any benefit or payment.  Instead, NCE stations may broadcast announcements that identify but do not “promote” station benefactors.  Such messages may not, among other things, include product descriptions, price comparisons, or calls to action on behalf of a for-profit donor.  According to the FCC, these limitations “protect the public’s use and enjoyment of commercial-free broadcasts” and “provide a level playing field for the noncommercial broadcasters that obey the law and for the commercial broadcasters that are entitled to seek revenue from advertising.”

The FCC was tipped off to the violations when the licensees of several nearby commonly-owned stations filed a Formal Complaint outlining over a dozen announcements broadcast on the University’s stations.  The complainants alleged that these messages, which were aired on an ongoing basis in 2016, violated the underwriting rules by either including promotional statements or promoting specific products for sale.  Most of the announcements were sponsored by local businesses, including an announcement for a nearby car dealership described as “impressive with a very clean pre-owned model or program unit,” a furniture store that has a “good deal … going there” where listeners can get “pretty stuff,” and a local insurance agent offering services that he had “never done on radio before.”

The Enforcement Bureau responded to the Formal Complaint by issuing multiple Letters of Inquiry to the University seeking additional information about the announcements and the University’s underwriting compliance efforts.  In its response, the University admitted that the announcements had been simulcast on both stations, but emphasized that the stations’ staff had received “extensive” training on underwriting issues, and that it believed that the stations had complied with the underwriting rules.

To resolve the years-long investigation, the University agreed to enter into a Consent Decree under which the University agreed to: (1) pay a $76,000 civil penalty; (2) admit to violating the FCC’s underwriting rules; and (3) implement a five-year compliance plan to ensure there will be no future violations.

Tower Records: Predecessor’s Lax Oversight of Antenna Structures Leads to $1.3 Million Settlement for Large Broadcast Company

A large television broadcast company has agreed to settle an FCC investigation into whether the prior owner of several of the company’s towers failed to sufficiently monitor and maintain records regarding them.

Part 17 of the FCC’s Rules requires a tower owner to comply with various registration, lighting and painting requirements.  Tower marking and lighting is a vital component of air traffic safety, and noncompliant structures pose serious hazards to air navigation.  To this end, a tower owner is responsible for observing the tower at least once every day for any lighting failures or to have in place an automatic monitoring system to detect such failures.  The tower owner must also maintain a record of any extinguished or improperly functioning lights.  The FCC’s rules also require a tower owner to notify the FCC within 5 days of a change in a tower’s ownership.

In September 2018, a small plane crashed into a southern Louisiana broadcast tower, prompting an FCC investigation into the tower and its owner.  The FCC determined that the tower was registered to a subsidiary of a national broadcaster which at the time controlled over a dozen television stations and related antenna structures.  Following up on the crash, the Enforcement Bureau issued the company a Letter of Inquiry seeking information about its compliance with the FCC’s tower rules.  The company responded by disclosing numerous “irregularities” in its monitoring of the lighting systems of the toppled tower and nine other towers.  It also disclosed that it had failed to keep complete records of a dozen lighting failures at several of its towers, and that it had not notified the Commission of its acquisition of two other towers. 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:

  • North Carolina FM Translator Station Hit With $2,000 Proposed Fine Over Primary Station Change
  • FCC Admonishes Georgia TV Stations for Insufficient Political File Disclosures
  • FCC Proposes Historic Fine Against Massachusetts Pirate Radio Operation

Carolina On My Mind: FCC Proposes $2,000 Fine Over Raleigh FM Translator’s Primary Station Confusion

A Raleigh FM translator briefly rebroadcast a station that was not its primary station and which was already being rebroadcast by another commonly-owned translator in the area.  In response, the FCC proposed a $2,000 fine for the licensee’s failure to notify the Commission or to provide any justification for such redundant operations.

An FM translator station rebroadcasts the signal of a primary AM or FM station on a different frequency.  Translators are often used to provide “fill in” service in poor reception areas due to distance or terrain obstructions.  Section 74.1251(c) of the FCC’s Rules requires an FM translator station to notify the FCC in writing if it changes its primary station.  Pursuant to Section 74.1232, an entity may not hold multiple FM translator licenses to retransmit the same signal to substantially the same service area without first demonstrating “technical need” for an additional station, such as a signal gap in the service area.

The Raleigh licensee originally applied for a construction permit to build facilities for an FM translator in July 2018 and shortly thereafter amended the application to change the translator’s proposed primary station.  The FCC’s Media Bureau granted the application a few weeks later.  After completing construction, the licensee filed, and the Media Bureau granted, a license for the translator.

Throughout this process, the licensee of a nearby low power FM station filed multiple petitions–one challenging the FCC’s grant of the construction permit, and a later one challenging the grant of the license itself.  Though the first petition was dismissed by the FCC as “procedurally defective”, the latter became the basis of an investigation into the new station.  The petitioner claimed that since initiating service, the new translator station had been rebroadcasting a nearby AM station rather than the FM station specified as the primary station in its construction permit application.  According to the petitioner, the translator only “returned” to its authorized primary station when the primary FM station began simulcasting the AM station.

The petitioner also asserted that the translator licensee failed to show any “technical need” to rebroadcast the AM station since the AM station was already being rebroadcast to substantially the same area by another translator licensed to an entity that was commonly-owned with the FM translator.

The FCC concluded that the new translator had violated its rules by failing to notify the FCC when it commenced rebroadcasting the AM station during its first month of operation.  The FCC further determined that the licensee should have first submitted a “technical need” showing to support this change due to the presence of the nearby commonly-owned translator station rebroadcasting the same programming.

As a result, the FCC issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order and Notice of Apparent Liability against the licensee, proposing a $2,000 fine.  While FCC guidelines set a base fine of $3,000 for failure to file required forms or information, and a $4,000 base fine for unauthorized emissions, the Commission may adjust a fine upward or downward after considering the particular facts of each case.  Acknowledging the brief duration of the licensee’s violations and finding no history of prior offenses, the FCC proposed a total fine of $2,000.  Additionally, the Commission determined that the licensee’s actions did not raise a “substantial or material question of fact” regarding the licensee’s qualifications to remain a licensee, and affirmed its decision to grant the translator license application.

Political Ad Nauseum: FCC Admonishes Georgia TV Stations Over Political File Defects

In a recent Order, the FCC’s Media Bureau admonished the licensees of two Georgia television stations in response to complaints alleging violations of the FCC’s political file rules.  According to the FCC, the stations failed to sufficiently comply with record-keeping obligations in response to several political ad sales made in 2017.

Pursuant to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (often referred to as “BCRA” or the “McCain-Feingold Act”), broadcasters are required to keep and make available extensive records of purchases and requests for purchases of advertising time if the advertisement communicates a message relating to a “political matter of national importance”.  Section 315(e) of the Communications Act of 1934, which was amended by BCRA, states that ads that trigger such disclosure include those that relate to legally qualified federal candidates and elections to federal office, as well as “national legislative issues” of public importance. 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:

  • Government Shutdown and Other “Compelling Reasons” Prompt FCC to Reinstate NY Radio Station License
  • FCC Fines Virginia AM Station and Limits License Renewal to Two Years for Missing Quarterly Programs/Issues Lists
  • Virginia Station’s Late License Renewal Application Proves Costly

How Do You Measure a Year?  “Unique Circumstances” Lead to New York AM Station’s Reinstatement

In a Memorandum Opinion and Order and related Consent Decree, the Media Bureau agreed to reinstate the license of a Long Island, New York AM radio station that had been silent for nearly all of 2018 before going back on air without authorization in the midst of this year’s partial government shutdown.  The Media Bureau also approved an application to sell the station that had been pending since February.

Section 73.1745(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires a station to broadcast according to the “modes and power” specified in its license, and further requires licensees to seek special temporary authority (often referred to as an “STA”) when seeking to operate at variance from their license.  Even where a station obtains temporary authority from the FCC to remain silent, Section 312(g) of the Communications Act of 1934 provides that a broadcast station’s license automatically expires if it does not transmit a broadcast signal for 12 consecutive months.  The FCC does not consider unauthorized operation to be a “broadcast signal” for purposes of declaring a station’s operations to be resumed under Section 312(g).  Fortunately, the FCC has the discretion to reinstate a license that would otherwise be lost under Section 312(g) where it is appropriate as a matter of “equity and fairness.”

On January 25, 2018, the AM station went silent due to the loss of its licensed transmitter site.  Shortly thereafter, the licensee sought and was granted authority by the FCC to remain silent through August 16, 2018.  When that date arrived, the station continued to remain silent, but failed to apply for an extension of that authority.  On January 15, 2019, the licensee informed the FCC that it had resumed operations on an emergency antenna at low power, and it filed a request for special temporary authority to operate at those parameters.  The station’s request fell on deaf ears, however, as the federal government was shut down at that time due to a budget dispute.  The FCC did not resume normal operations until January 26, 2019, and did not grant the STA request until February 1. 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:

  • 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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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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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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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:

  • Investigation Into Undisclosed Radio Station Owner With a History of Felonies Leads to Hearing Designation Order
  • FCC Settles With Alaskan Broadcaster After Disastrous Station Inspection
  • FCC Reinstates Licenses for Tennessee and Alabama Radio Stations, Then Immediately Threatens to Revoke Them

Continue reading →