Articles Posted in Ownership Law & Regulation

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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:

  • Oregon LPFM Station Warned Over Emergency Alert System Violations
  • Pennsylvania Man Accused of Interfering With Local Fire Department Operations
  • Earth Station Transmission Problems Lead to Warning Against Florida Wireless Licensee

This is Not a Test: Low Power FM Station Warned Over Emergency Alert Violations

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau presented a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to the licensee of a Portland, Oregon low-power FM radio station for a number of violations relating to the Emergency Alert System. The licensee is a local cultural community center that broadcasts Russian-language programming to the area’s Eastern European community.

The Emergency Alert System (“EAS”) is a nationwide warning system that allows authorized state and national public agencies to alert the public about urgent situations, including natural disasters and other incidents that require immediate attention.  The EAS is jointly operated by the FCC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration.  Local radio stations make up a vital component of the system by monitoring authorized sources for alerts and rapidly relaying these emergency messages.  Such stations are referred to as “EAS participants.”  Each state is responsible for creating a state EAS plan, which includes designating in-state stations that other stations must constantly monitor for alerts.

Section 11.15 of the FCC’s Rules requires that a copy of the EAS Operating Handbook be located “at normal duty stations or EAS equipment locations when an operator is required to be on duty.”  Section 11 of the Rules also requires EAS participants to monitor two sources, which are specified in each state’s respective EAS plan.

In February 2019, Enforcement Bureau agents inspected the Portland station and discovered two violations of the EAS Rules.  According to the NOV, the station was unable to produce its copy of the EAS Operating Handbook.  The agents also discovered a monitoring error.  The most recent Oregon State Emergency Alert Plan required the station to monitor two specific Portland area FM stations.  During the inspection, the agents found the LPFM station had instead been monitoring a different station.

The licensee has 20 days to respond to the NOV.  In its response, it must provide: (1) an explanation of each violation; (2) a description of the licensee’s corrective actions; and (3) a timeline for completion of these actions.  The FCC will then consider the licensee’s responses and all relevant information to determine what, if any, enforcement action it will take against the licensee for the violations.

State Your Emergency: FCC Accuses Pennsylvania Man of Interfering With Safety Services

In a Notice of Unlicensed Operation and Notification of Harmful Interference (“Notice”), the FCC accused a man of using a two-way radio to cause harmful interference to a local emergency services operation by making unauthorized transmissions on a frequency reserved for public safety.

As we discussed last year, Chairman Pai has noted that protecting public safety and emergency response communications is of the utmost importance.  The Enforcement Bureau has recently responded aggressively to interference complaints from first responders and emergency service departments, including issuing multi-thousand dollar fines.

Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits the transmission of radio signals without prior FCC authorization.  Section 90.20 of the Rules establishes the requirements for obtaining authorization to use public safety frequencies.  The FCC reserves certain bands for first responders as “public safety spectrum.” Unauthorized transmissions on such bands can pose a threat to first responders and the general public by interfering with local emergency service operations, including police, EMS, or in this case, the fire department.

The Enforcement Bureau began its investigation after being contacted by an eastern Pennsylvania county’s Emergency Management Association.  According to the complaint, harmful interference and unauthorized transmissions were occurring on 155.190 MHz, a frequency used for local fire department communications.  The Enforcement Bureau identified a local individual as the source of the interfering transmissions.

According to the Notice, the individual admitted to operating a VHF-UHF two-way radio at 155.190 MHz, despite not being authorized to operate on that frequency.

The individual was given 10 days to respond to the Notice.  In his response, the individual must explain the steps he is taking to avoid operating on unauthorized frequencies and causing harmful interference.  It will then be up to the FCC to determine whether further enforcement action, including fines or other sanctions, is appropriate. 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:

Headlines:

  • FCC Fines Kentucky Men $144,344 for Illegally Operating LPTV Station for 18 Years
  • North Carolina Radio Station Settles With FCC Over Decades of Unauthorized Transfers
  • Connecticut Radio Station Warned for Inspection and Antenna Violations

Pay Up: FCC Fines Two Kentucky Men for Illegally Operating LPTV Station for 18 Years

The FCC issued a Forfeiture Order imposing a $144,344 penalty against the operators of a Kentucky unlicensed low-power television (“LPTV”) station.  The station had been operating without FCC authorization since 1998.  The Communications Act prohibits the operation of a broadcast station without FCC authorization.  As we reported in 2017, the FCC previously adopted a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”) against the individuals.  This Forfeiture Order affirms the NAL.

The first individual (“Individual 1”) initially applied for and was granted the LPTV license in 1990, as well as a subsequent renewal term that ran from July 1993 through August 1998.  By the time that term expired, however, the individual licensee had failed to file a license renewal application or seek special temporary authorization to operate the station, and by August 1998, the station was operating without any FCC authorization.  In 2004, the FCC’s Media Bureau sent a letter to the individual asking whether he had filed a license renewal application.  Receiving no response, the Media Bureau sent a letter notifying the licensee that the station’s license had been cancelled.

Fast forward eight years, to 2016, when the Media Bureau learned that the station might still be operating.  The matter was referred to the Enforcement Bureau, which confirmed that the station was still on the air.  During the investigation, Enforcement Bureau field agents interviewed Individual 1 as well as a second individual who identified himself as the station’s studio manager and operations manager (“Individual 2”).  During their meeting with Individual 2 at the station, the agents issued a Notice of Unlicensed Radio Operation (“NOUO”) demanding the station cease operations and warning of possible further enforcement action.  In Individual 2’s response to the NOUO, he argued that the station was actually still licensed and referred to the NOUO as only a “request” to shut down.

Field agents returned a few months later to find the station still operating.  The Enforcement Bureau subsequently issued the NAL.

Both men responded individually to the NAL.  Individual 1 claimed, among other things, that the license should still be in effect because he filed a license renewal application in 2004 and included $1,155 to cover license renewal fees for three of his stations through 2022.  He further claimed that the station should remain on air because of the benefits it provides to local residents.  At the same time, however, Individual 1 also claimed to have “never operated a TV station” in the area and had not visited the station in over 15 years.  Finally, Individual 1 sought a reduction in the proposed penalty due to an inability to pay.

The FCC outright rejected all of Individual 1’s claims.  Regarding the late license renewal application, besides filing the application six year late, the filing would only have covered the preceding license term.  Further, the Media Bureau could not have accepted the application because while the funds could have covered the stations’ accumulated annual regulatory fees, Individual 1 did not include application processing fees, without which the Media Bureau cannot review an application.

In response to the claims about benefiting the local community, the FCC stated that any alleged benefit from operations “does not absolve [the operator] from liability.”  The FCC also rejected Individual 1’s claim that he never operated the station, noting that the claim conflicted with the evidence, which included filings and statements made by both individuals to the contrary.

Individual 2’s response to the NAL similarly did not gain much traction with the FCC, despite a few novel theories.  In his response, Individual 2 claimed that the FCC lacks jurisdiction over the station because its signal was not intended to reach beyond the state of Kentucky.  Further, Individual 2 included a petition signed by over 100 local residents urging the FCC to allow the station to continue operating.  Individual 2 also claimed that he lacked the financial resources to pay the penalty.

The FCC rejected Individual 2’s federalism argument as contradicting the plain language of the Communications Act, which prohibits making unauthorized intrastate or interstate transmissions.  Further, the Commission gave no weight to the station’s “community support,” as it had no bearing on the unlicensed operation of a broadcast station.

The FCC also declined to reduce the penalty amount for either party, who it found jointly and individually liable.  Beyond a lack of evidence of inability to pay, the FCC determined that the severity of the violation warranted the penalty, which was calculated by multiplying the $10,000 per day base penalty amount by 22 days of unauthorized operations.  In fact, the Forfeiture Order states that the only reason the penalty was not greater is because $144,344 is the statutory maximum permitted under the Communications Act for a continuing violation.  The FCC also reminded the parties that an ability to pay is only one consideration in adjusting a penalty amount.  Here, the violation lasted over 18 years, and the parties were notified or directly warned at several points over that period about the consequences of operating without a license.

History of an Error: North Carolina Licensee Settles with FCC Over Decades of Unauthorized Transfers and Missing Ownership Reports

The Media Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with the licensee of a North Carolina AM radio station and FM translator station for violating the FCC’s rules governing transfers of control and the filing of ownership reports.

Section 310 of the Communications Act and Section 73.3540 of the FCC’s Rules prohibit the transfer of control of broadcast licenses from one individual, entity, or group to another without prior FCC approval.  In the case of full-power broadcast stations, parties must file FCC Form 315 applications and receive FCC consent before a transfer of control can be consummated.

The transfer of control applications ultimately leading to the Consent Decree were filed with the FCC in April 2018, but the licensee’s problems began over thirty years earlier, shortly after the FCC approved an assignment of the AM station’s license.  The FCC believes that, in 1986, the licensee had five attributable shareholders (the FCC states in a footnote that it is unable to locate the licensee’s original assignment application).  However, over the next few years, over 50% of the licensee’s stock changed hands without FCC consent.  Again, in 1992, more than 50% of the licensee’s stock was transferred without consent, and new directors were appointed to control the licensee.  In 1994, another unauthorized transfer transpired when a minority shareholder acquired a 66% interest in the licensee without prior Commission approval. 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:

Headlines:

  • Alabama FM Licensee Admits to On-Air Contest and Unauthorized Transfer of Control Violations
  • Silicon Valley Start-Up Agrees to Pay $900,000 Penalty for Unauthorized Satellite Launches
  • Michigan AM Licensee Faces Proposed $18,000 Fine and Reduced License Term for a Variety of Violations

No-Win Situation: FM Licensee Settles with FCC Over On-Air Contest and Unauthorized Transfer of Control Violations

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with the licensee of an Alabama FM radio station for violating the FCC’s rules governing on-air contests and transfers of control.

The FCC regulates licensee-conducted contests in order to protect the public against deceptive and misleading practices.  Section 508 of the Communications Act (“Act”) prohibits a licensee from knowingly deceiving the public by manipulating or predetermining the results of a contest.  Section 73.1216(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires a licensee to “fully and accurately disclose the material terms of the contest” and the contest must be conducted in accordance with those announced terms.

Section 310 of the Act and Section 73.3540 of the FCC’s Rules prohibit the transfer of control of a broadcast license without prior FCC approval.  A de facto transfer occurs when a licensee no longer retains ultimate control over vital aspects of a station’s operations, including its programming, personnel, and finances.

In August 2016, the FCC received a complaint alleging that the licensee “prematurely ended” an on-air contest and failed to award the advertised prizes. According to the complaint, the station instead kept the prizes and provided them to its own employee.

The Enforcement Bureau responded nearly a year later by issuing a Letter of Inquiry (“LOI”) to the licensee seeking information about the contest. In its response, the licensee denied any knowledge of the contest nor was it was able to find any records related to the contest.  According to the Consent Decree, the licensee’s professed lack of knowledge about the contest “raised questions about the Licensee’s control over the Station.”  As a result, in July 2018, the Enforcement Bureau issued a supplemental LOI to the licensee investigating the apparent de facto unauthorized transfer of control to the third party that conducted the contest, who had a time brokerage agreement with the station.  According to the FCC, it had not approved, nor had the licensee applied for, a transfer of control of the license.

To resolve the FCC’s investigation, the licensee entered into a Consent Decree with the Enforcement Bureau.  Under the terms of the Consent Decree, the licensee agreed to (1) admit liability for violations of the FCC’s contest and unauthorized transfer of control rules; (2) pay a $12,000 civil penalty; and (3) develop and implement a compliance plan to prevent further violations of the FCC’s Rules.

Space Oddity: Start-Up Agrees to Pay $900,000 to Settle Investigation into Unauthorized Satellite Operations

After a bizarre string of events involving unauthorized communications satellites, space launches from India, and experimental weather balloons over California, the FCC entered into a Consent Decree with a Silicon Valley satellite start-up.

Section 301 of the Act and Section 25.102 of the FCC’s Rules prohibit the operation of any device for the transmission of energy, communications, or signals by space or earth stations unless in accordance with an FCC authorization.  Section 25.113 of the FCC’s Rules requires FCC authorization before deployment and operation of a space satellite. 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:

Headlines:

  • Ownership Questions Lead to Hearing Designation Order for LPFM Licensee
  • NC Man Hit with $40,000 Fine for Unauthorized Transmissions Over Public Safety Radio
  • FCC Issues Notice to Hospital Paging System Licensee for Harmful Interference

FCC Launches Hearing in Response to LPFM’s Undisclosed Foreign Ownership

The FCC has designated for hearing a Low Power FM (“LPFM”) licensee’s modification application after an investigation into whether the licensee misrepresented the makeup and citizenship of its ownership in various Commission filings.

Under Section 309 of the Communications Act (“Act”), the FCC must first determine that the public interest will be served before it can grant a station license or modification application.  If there is a substantial question that prevents the Commission from making that determination, it must designate the application for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).  The FCC can revoke the license if an ALJ determines that the applicant lacks the “requisite qualifications” to be a licensee, taking into consideration the applicant’s record, character, and truthfulness in dealings with the FCC.

The Act also prohibits entities with greater than 20% alien ownership or voting control from holding a broadcast license where the FCC finds such foreign ownership is not in the public interest.  Many FCC filings require the licensee to identify all officers, directors, and entities with attributable ownership interests in the licensee, including their citizenship.

According to the Hearing Designation Order (“HDO”), the Missouri-based licensee initially applied for a construction permit for a new LPFM station in 2013.  In that application, the licensee listed five individuals as board members and identified all of them as U.S. citizens.  In two separate modification applications in January and November 2017, the licensee identified the same board members as U.S. citizens.

The Enforcement Bureau began its investigation after another licensee alleged that four of the five listed board members were not actually U.S. citizens.  The Bureau discovered that one of the board members had, only weeks before the licensee’s January application, lost an appeal before a federal court to reopen his deportation order to Guatemala.  The court decision referred to him as a Guatemalan citizen.  His wife, another board member, had already been deported to Guatemala.  These revelations indicated that foreign ownership and control of the licensee not only exceeded 20 percent, but that the licensee had also falsely certified the U.S. citizenship of the two board members.

In addition to questions of citizenship, the Bureau also found evidence that the licensee may not have even identified all individuals with attributable interests in the licensee.  Specifically, in documents filed with the Missouri Secretary of State, the licensee listed several officers and board members that it had not disclosed to the FCC.

According to the FCC, these discoveries raised a “substantial and material question of fact” as to whether the licensee misrepresented to the Commission both the makeup and the citizenship of its attributable owners.

The FCC sent the licensee two Letters of Inquiry seeking information about the licensee’s board members, but never received any response.  Failure to respond to a Commission inquiry is also a violation of the FCC’s Rules.

As a result, the FCC commenced an administrative hearing to determine whether the licensee: (1) made misrepresentations in its applications; (2) violated the Commission’s foreign ownership rules; (3) failed to maintain the accuracy of its pending application; and (4) failed to respond to the FCC’s inquiries.

In light of these questions, the ALJ must also examine the facts to determine whether granting the licensee’s pending application is in the public interest, and whether the licensee is even qualified to hold an FCC license at all.

FCC Proposes $40,000 Fine for Impersonating a Firefighter

In a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”), the FCC found a North Carolina man apparently liable for transmitting on a frequency licensed to local first responders while impersonating a member of the local Volunteer Fire Department. Continue reading →

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For nearly 80 years, the FCC’s Rules have required broadcasters to file paper copies of various types of documents relating to the control and operation of their stations.  Section 73.3613 of the FCC’s Rules requires broadcasters to file with the FCC certain contracts and instruments relating to network affiliations, present or future ownership or control, and some personnel agreements, as well as local marketing agreements (“LMAs”) and joint sales agreements (“JSAs”).  Today, the FCC voted unanimously to eliminate this requirement.

The rule was originally created in the 1930s to make these documents more accessible to both FCC staff and the public.  However, the advent of the online public inspection file has effectively rendered this octogenarian obligation obsolete.  By March 1, 2018, all full-power TV, Class A TV, AM and FM broadcasters should have transitioned to the online public inspection file (“OPIF”), where they must either (i) upload all Section 73.3613 documents, or (ii) maintain an up-to-date list of those documents and provide a copy of any listed contract requested by a party within seven days of that request.  Similarly, stations are required to list all Section 73.3613 documents in their Ownership Reports, which are then automatically linked by the FCC to station OPIFs.

In eliminating the requirement to file such documents with the Commission, the FCC reasoned that the paper filing rule not only imposed unnecessary burdens on stations, but was redundant with the OPIF and Ownership Report requirements; as a result, the requirement did little to serve the public.  The FCC also observed that very few people actually visited its Reference Information Center, where all of these paper filings are maintained.  Members of the public will continue to be able to obtain copies of Section 73.3613 agreements directly from stations by requesting them.

For their part, stations must remain diligent and update their OPIF contract lists within 30 days of the execution, termination, or amendment of any Section 73.3613 document.  As we have previously discussed, timely filing is now particularly important because all OPIF uploads are timestamped, and late uploads are easy for FCC staff to spot at license renewal time.

Today’s Order also extends the FCC’s permitted redaction rules applicable to JSAs and LMAs to all Section 73.3613 documents.  Section 73.3613 currently only addresses redaction of confidential or proprietary information in the context of JSAs and LMAs.  In the past, stations have filed redacted copies of other contracts, as Section 0.459 of the FCC’s Rules allows certain materials to be withheld from public inspection.  The amended Part 73 redaction rule will explicitly allow limited redaction of all Section 73.3613 documents.

Though these changes will certainly save broadcasters time and resources in the long run, broadcasters should continue filing Section 73.3613 documents with the FCC for the moment.  Before the full rule change can go into effect, it must be approved by the Office of Management and Budget.  In the past, such approvals have typically taken many months, so this rule change may well not go into effect until sometime next year.

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The FCC announced on Friday afternoon that it would push back the December 1, 2017 deadline for commercial and noncommercial broadcast stations to file their biennial ownership reports.  Rather than opening the filing window on September 1 and closing it on December 1, the FCC will open the window on December 1 and close it on March 2, 2018.  The Commission stressed that it is only changing the filing due date, not the period of time covered by the report.  That is, all reports, regardless of when in the window they are filed, must be accurate as of October 1, 2017.  If a station is sold after October 1, 2017, the former ownership of the station must still be reported when the form is finally filed.

This biennial ownership filing cycle is the first one in which both commercial and noncommercial stations file on the new consolidated filing date, which was to be December 1 of odd numbered years.  In addition, it will be the first one to use new ownership report forms accessed and filed through the FCC’s new Licensing Management System (“LMS”), rather than the CDBS filing system that is being phased out.

In its comments in the FCC’s proceeding to reduce or eliminate regulatory burdens on broadcasters, the NAB had requested that the Commission suspend the December 1, 2017 filing date while it considers comments the NAB and others filed seeking a reduction in the frequency and burden of ownership reporting.  NAB followed that request up with a letter asking that the Commission allow additional time specifically for broadcasters to test the new filing system and revised ownership reporting forms to avoid the debacle that occurred in 2009-2010 when the FCC last updated the form for commercial stations, causing multiple delays and suspensions of the filing deadlines.

In delaying this year’s ownership report filing, the FCC said that it was acting of its own accord to permit adequate time for the integration of the new ownership report forms with the FCC’s LMS filing database.  Whatever the technical issues the FCC faces in that process, there is plenty for broadcasters to do during this delay.  For radio broadcasters, the LMS is an entirely new filing system with which they will need to become familiar.  As broadcasters’ recent experience with the unexpected and dramatic redesign of the Emergency Test Reporting System (ETRS) showed, the learning curve surrounding a new filing system can be very steep and frustrating.

In addition, the FCC requires that all reportable interest holders be identified in the ownership report by one of three types of unique identifiers.  As we have explained before, reportable interest holders must secure a Federal Registration Number (the CORES FRN, not to be confused with the CORES Username and Password needed to access the ETRS), and to do so must provide the FCC with their full Social Security Number.  To address the backlash from those concerned about providing their SSNs, the Commission created a Restricted Use FRN, or RUFRN, that can be used only in ownership reports and requires reporting the interest holder’s name, date of birth, residential address and last four digits of their SSN.  Finally, if an interest holder refuses to release the information needed to secure a CORES FRN or a RUFRN, the licensee may secure a Special Use FRN without revealing any SSN information upon a showing that it made a good faith effort to secure a CORES FRN or RUFRN.

Most recently, the Commission exempted interest holders in noncommercial licensees, many of whom are volunteers, from the CORES FRN/RUFRN requirement going forward, and those licensees may use SUFRNs for their reportable interest holders without having to make a showing of good faith efforts to collect interest holders’ SSNs.

Still, all licensees have some administrative work to do in advance of the ownership report filing, determining which of their interest holders already have a CORES FRN, creating RUFRNs for any interest holders needing them, and determining whether use of the SUFRN is permitted or appropriate for any interest holders.

While the delay will provide broadcasters with more time to address the difficulties of using the new form and filing system, the recent experience with ETRS gives broadcasters plenty to think about as they prepare for their next ownership filing.

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As we wrote about at the time, in April the Pai FCC continued its efforts to modernize broadcast regulation by restoring an old rule–the UHF Discount–until it can take a broader look at its national ownership cap later this year.  While restoration of the Discount merely reinstated the status quo that existed before the Wheeler FCC’s rushed effort to eliminate the Discount last fall, the decision was greeted with disdain by advocacy groups concerned about media consolidation.

After the Commission’s April 20 vote to restore the UHF Discount, those groups filed a request that the FCC stay the rule change rather than let it go into effect on June 5, 2017.  The FCC did not act on that stay request, leading the groups to file an additional stay request with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on May 26, 2017.

Given the short time span between the stay filing and the effective date of the Discount reinstatement, the court issued an administrative stay of the effectiveness of the change until it could complete its review of the request and oppositions filed subsequently.  A fair amount of public confusion was caused when a number of publications reported that administrative stay as “court stays reinstatement of UHF Discount”, failing to note that it was just a short term stay unrelated to the merits of the case.

This morning, the court lifted that administrative stay, and denied the groups’ larger request for a stay pending court review of the FCC’s order reinstating the UHF Discount.  In a one-page order, the court tersely stated that the “Petitioners have not satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending review” and denied the request.

As a result, the UHF Discount is once again the law of the land.  It is of course still subject to the pending appeal, which the court will rule on at a later date.  However, even that appeal could be mooted by whatever action the FCC takes in its comprehensive review of the national ownership rule later this year.

 

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While the great American songwriter Sammy Cahn felt it was Love and Marriage that were inseparable (as they “go together like a horse and carriage”), the FCC today found the UHF Discount just as inseparable from its 39% National TV Ownership Cap.  By a 2-1 party-line vote, the FCC this morning restored the UHF Discount, reversing a decision of the Wheeler FCC released just seven months ago.  The FCC indicated that it would consider the future of the UHF Discount in a comprehensive review of its broadcast ownership rules commencing later this year.

Most rules aimed at preserving competition focus on a competitor’s market share as the trigger for restricting further growth.  Oddly, the National TV Ownership Cap instead focuses exclusively on a television broadcaster’s mere geographic presence as being the danger.  Using that logic, you would expect Sears to be able to easily crush Amazon since Sears has far more locations than Amazon.  However, if you were ever to make that argument in public, the laughter would be long and loud.

Those unfamiliar with the Cap might assume a 39% limit means an entity is restricted to having no more than a 39% nationwide share of either advertising revenue or viewers (depending on which “market” the government thinks is the relevant one).  That is certainly the way a regulatory cap works in most industries.  In fact, before a court tossed it out for other reasons, the FCC’s own national cable cap rule prohibited ownership of cable systems having more than 30% of all U.S. subscribers.

In contrast, the National TV Ownership Cap just totals the households in each TV market served by a broadcaster (regardless of whether those viewers actually watch or can even receive the station at issue) and yells “Stop!” when the total market population reaches 39% of national TV households.  Even if a broadcaster’s stations have a less than a 1% audience/ad revenue share in each of those markets, it is still treated as a competitive behemoth whose growth must be halted.

In the real world, a station’s over-the-air signal often doesn’t cover all the households in its market, meaning that the Cap is not just measuring the wrong thing, but is doing so inaccurately by attributing all TV households in a market to that station.  Unlike the Cap itself, the UHF Discount acknowledges the illogic of this, and counts only half the TV households in a UHF market toward the Cap in an effort to approximate real world coverage.  Even if the digital transition had actually eliminated the disparity between VHF and UHF coverage (look here for a contrary argument), it doesn’t change the fact that the approach upon which the UHF Discount is based—trying to assess actual signal reach—is far more logical than the treatment of VHF stations under the Cap, which arbitrarily counts all TV households in a geographic market.

So if you are willing to overlook the flawed premise of the Cap itself—that geographic presence rather than actual market share is what is relevant—then the method of counting households under the UHF Discount is actually far more defensible than the arbitrary treatment applied to VHF stations by the Cap.  If the treatment of UHF and VHF stations needs to be conformed, the answer would not be to eliminate the UHF Discount, but to instead conform the treatment of VHF stations and make a similar assessment of their actual population coverage.

There are certainly those who would vigorously challenge that conclusion, and they would likely present two arguments to support their case.  The first is that the Cap is intended not merely to preserve competition, but also to preserve Americans’ access to diverse content.  The second is that cable and satellite carriage now relays a station’s signal to all corners of its market, making it reasonable to attribute all households in that market to the station.  However, these two arguments cancel each other out.

Even with cord-cutting, well over 80% of TV households are cable/satellite subscribers.  That sounds like a point in favor of the “you should count all households” approach, right?  But in those pay-TV households, retransmitted broadcast channels are surrounded by hundreds of other program streams.  As a result, these households have available a level of program diversity that was unimaginable when the National Cap rule was first created in 1985.  That in turn dilutes the potential influence of any one program source, eliminating the need for broadcast ownership restrictions with regard to these households.

It is therefore only in non-cable/satellite households that the Cap could theoretically serve its claimed purpose.  However, if the concern underlying the Cap is a broadcaster having influence over viewers in households lacking a multitude of competing program sources, less than 20% of all U.S. TV households would even be at risk of that (and that assumes we are talking about a broadcaster with a TV station in every market in the country).  While the Cap currently limits a broadcaster to having this influence in markets containing 39% of TV households, it has become physically impossible have such influence in even 20% of TV households.  And of course, all of this overlooks Internet video sources, which are likely heavily utilized in non-cable/satellite households since many are cord-cutters now relying on Internet video services.

Whether or not the UHF Discount is in place won’t alter any of this.  It’s not the UHF Discount that has outlived it usefulness, but the Cap itself.  The UHF Discount merely reduces the damage caused by a now outdated Cap.

Still, there are those who disagree with the FCC’s stated goal of reviewing the Cap and the UHF Discount together, arguing that if there is no longer a UHF/VHF disparity, the FCC should ignore the forest and focus on just that one tree.  However, Chairman Pai correctly noted that, in eliminating the UHF Discount, the “Commission vote[d] to substantially tighten the national audience reach cap,” and the FCC’s action would “substantially change the impact of the national cap.”  The notion that one can be eliminated without affecting the other is indeed a fiction.  By eliminating the UHF Discount without assessing whether the Cap as modified by that action was in the public interest, the FCC failed to meet its most fundamental statutory mandate.  Today, the FCC rectified that error.

So the FCC will now move on to a more unified and comprehensive review of its broadcast ownership rules.  In that review, it will have to recognize that the UHF Discount is just as inseparable from the current Cap as Sammy Cahn’s lyrical horse and carriage.  It might also conclude that, like the horse and carriage, the National Cap has become a relic of another time.

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Just 29 days ago, the FCC’s Media Bureau issued an unusual decision denying Petitions for Reconsideration of an order adopted by the commissioners themselves, raising questions as to who’s in charge at the FCC.  The petitions were filed by noncommercial broadcasters in the Commission’s long-running proceeding to update its broadcast ownership reporting requirements.  Today, a much different Media Bureau backtracked on that decision—the FCC’s rules give it 30 days to change its mind—and decided that ruling on petitions seeking reconsideration of a Commission-level order is a matter best left to the commissioners themselves.

Continue reading →

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Noncommercial stations caught a break today.  For many years, broadcast stations filed annual ownership reports on the anniversary date of their license renewal deadline.  Since those deadlines varied from state to state (and even between radio and TV in the same state), determining whether a station had filed its reports on time could be challenging.  That task was further complicated by the fact that a licensee owning stations in multiple states could elect to consolidate the filing of its ownership reports for all stations on the license renewal date for any one state in which it had a station.

Ultimately, the FCC concluded that the reports didn’t need to be filed annually, and made them biennial.  The result was that it became even more difficult for the FCC to keep track of whether a station had filed on time.  In fact, a licensee that had consolidated its ownership report filing date across multiple states might not even be filing in the same year as the FCC would normally expect.

Ultimately, the FCC gave up and decided to adopt a unified national deadline for commercial TV and radio stations in 2009.  At the same time, it expanded the list of entities that were required to file the reports (previously, sole proprietorships, general partnerships composed only of individuals, and LPTV licensees were exempt).  It set November 1 of odd-numbered years as the consolidated filing deadline, and indicated that it planned to eventually adopt a unified national deadline for noncommercial stations as well.

However, the FCC quickly discovered that given the increased complexity of the reports, and the fact that the information reported in them was required to reflect a station’s ownership as of October 1 of that same year, broadcasters were having trouble generating all of the required ownership reports in just 30 days.  The FCC also had some teething pains with the new electronic form, with the result that the November 1, 2009 deadline ended up being extended multiple times, ultimately resulting in a deadline for the 2009 reports of July 8, 2010.

After that painful ordeal, the FCC in 2011 permanently moved the commercial station deadline to December 1 of odd-numbered years, providing stations with a 61-day period to file the reports.  Perhaps because of how difficult and drawn out the process of establishing a unified deadline for commercial stations had been, the FCC moved very slowly in establishing the promised unified deadline for noncommercial stations.  It wasn’t until January 8, 2016 that the FCC moved forward on that front, adopting an Order creating a new online form (FCC Form 2100, Schedule 323-E) and establishing a unified national deadline for noncommercial stations to file it.  Because the new form had to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget (and that approval published in the Federal Register) before it could be used, it has still not gone into effect, meaning that throughout 2016, noncommercial stations have continued to file on a state-by-state basis using the old form.  It therefore seemed likely that a lot of noncommercial stations would end up filing two sets of ownership reports in 2017—one set on a station’s license renewal anniversary, and one set on the likely December 1, 2017 unified filing date.

Thankfully, the FCC announced this afternoon that it would not be burdening noncommercial stations with dual filings in 2017, releasing an Order suspending all 2017 biennial ownership reporting deadlines for noncommercial stations and announcing that 2017 will indeed be the year that noncommercial stations will finally have a common ownership reporting deadline.  That deadline will be December 1 of odd-numbered years, the same as the deadline for commercial stations.

That’s good news for noncommercial stations in general, and particularly for those with limited resources to make such filings.  Consider it an early Christmas gift from the FCC.