Articles Posted in Ownership Law & Regulation

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After much public debate, the FCC voted 3-2 today to reconsider and reverse the prior decision of the Wheeler FCC to leave the broadcast ownership rules largely unchanged in the 2010/2014 Quadrennial Regulatory Review.  As detailed in an FCC Fact Sheet released after the FCC’s action this morning, the FCC’s ultimate order will hew closely to the draft released several weeks ago which we discussed briefly here.  As a result, the FCC will be eliminating the Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership Rule and the Radio-Television Cross-Ownership Rule, eliminating the Eight-Voices Test for owning a local TV Duopoly, eliminating the attribution of joint sales agreements as a regulated ownership interest, and will consider allowing broadcasters to own two Top-4 rated TV stations in a market on a case-by-case basis.

The FCC is also launching a Diversity/Incubator program to facilitate entry by new players into the broadcast industry, adopting a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking today to gather comments on how that program should be structured and implemented.

Given the extended and very public debate over modernizing the FCC’s broadcast ownership rules, including a forum on Capitol Hill yesterday debating the merits, today’s vote was not a surprise.  Indeed, regardless of the outcome, the Commission is to be congratulated for finally grappling with tough issues that past Commissions have found easier to ignore while continuing to maintain the status quo.  Unfortunately, much of the public debate outside the FCC has been beset with jingoism and shallow analysis that, among other things, presumes broadcasters operate in a walled garden (to borrow a phrase from the tech industry, another player with which broadcasters must now compete).

In an effort to bring greater depth to the discussion, Pillsbury’s John Hane agreed to give his personal views on broadcast ownership regulation at yesterday’s Capitol Hill forum, but unfortunately was unable to participate due to illness.  Before the event, however, John had asked me to look at his opening statement, and it brought home to me how wonderful it would be if jingoism could be replaced with real-world analysis, and politics be sidelined by informed debate.  With John’s gracious permission, reprinted below is his opening statement for yesterday’s forum debate.  You may not agree with him, but he makes a compelling argument with which — based on this morning’s vote — a majority of the current FCC commissioners may well agree.

From the pen of Mr. Hane: Continue reading →

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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.

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November 2016

The staggered deadlines for noncommercial radio and television stations to file Biennial Ownership Reports remain in effect and are tied to each station’s respective license renewal filing deadline.

Noncommercial radio stations licensed to communities in Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont must electronically file their Biennial Ownership Reports by December 1, 2016. Licensees must file using FCC Form 323-E and must also place the form as filed in their station’s public inspection file.

On January 8, 2016, the Commission adopted changes to the ownership report forms and a single national filing deadline for all noncommercial radio and television broadcast stations like the one that the FCC previously established for all commercial radio and television stations. However, until the Office of Management and Budget approves the new forms, noncommercial radio and television stations should continue to file their biennial ownership reports every two years by the anniversary date of the station’s license renewal application filing deadline.

A PDF of this article can be found at Biennial Ownership Reports are due by December 1, 2016 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota and Noncommercial Television Stations in Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont

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The staggered deadlines for noncommercial radio and television stations to file Biennial Ownership Reports remain in effect and are tied to each station’s respective license renewal filing deadline.

Noncommercial radio stations licensed to communities in Iowa or Missouri and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, American Samoa, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands must electronically file their Biennial Ownership Reports by October 3, 2016 (because October 1 falls on a weekend, submission of this filing to the FCC may be made on the following business day). Licensees must file using FCC Form 323-E and must also place the form as filed in their station’s public inspection file.

On January 8, 2016, the Commission adopted changes to the ownership report forms and a single national filing deadline for all noncommercial radio and television broadcast stations like the one that the FCC previously established for all commercial radio and television stations. However, until the Office of Management and Budget approves the new forms, noncommercial radio and television stations should continue to file their biennial ownership reports every two years by the anniversary date of the station’s license renewal application filing deadline.

A PDF of this article can be found at Biennial Ownership Reports are due by October 3, 2016 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in Iowa and Missouri and Noncommercial Television Stations in Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, American Samoa, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands.

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The staggered deadlines for noncommercial radio and television stations to file Biennial Ownership Reports remain in effect and are tied to each station’s respective license renewal filing deadline.

Noncommercial radio stations licensed to communities in Illinois and Wisconsin and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in California, North Carolina and South Carolina must electronically file their Biennial Ownership Reports by August 1, 2016. Licensees must file using FCC Form 323-E and must also place the form as filed in their station’s public inspection file. Television stations must ensure that a copy of the form is posted to their online public inspection file at https://publicfiles.fcc.gov/.

On January 8, 2016, the Commission adopted a single national filing deadline for all noncommercial radio and television broadcast stations like the one that the FCC previously established for all commercial radio and television stations. However, until the Office of Management and Budget approves the new forms, noncommercial radio and television stations should continue to file their biennial ownership reports every two years by the anniversary date of the station’s license renewal application filing deadline.

A PDF of this article can be found at Biennial Ownership Reports are due by August 1, 2016 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in Illinois and Wisconsin and Noncommercial Television Stations in California, North Carolina and South Carolina.

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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 Refuses TV Licensee’s Request to Defer $15,000 Fine Until After Incentive Auction
  • FCC Proposes $20,000 Fine for Radio Licensee’s Violation of Multiple Ownership Rule
  • FCC Imposes $12,000 Fine and Short-Term License Renewal for Failure to Maintain Public Inspection File and File Ownership Reports

Red Light Blues: FCC Refuses TV Licensee’s Request to Defer Fine Collection Until After Incentive Auction

The FCC’s Media Bureau rejected a Kansas TV licensee’s request to defer a $15,000 fine for failing to timely file fourteen Children’s Television Programming Reports, and for failing to disclose the violations in its license renewal application.

Section 73.3256 of the FCC’s Rules requires each commercial broadcast licensee to maintain a public inspection file containing specific information related to station operations. Subsection 73.3526(e)(11)(iii) of the rule requires licensees to prepare and place in their public inspection files a Children’s Television Programming Report for each calendar quarter showing, among other things, the efforts made during that three-month period to serve the educational and informational needs of children.

In addition, Section 73.3514(a) of the FCC’s Rules requires licensees to include all information requested by an application form when filing it with the FCC. The license renewal application form requires licensees to certify that they have complied with Section 73.3526 and have timely filed their Children’s Television Programming Reports with the FCC.

In April 2016, the FCC issued a Notice of Apparent Liability (“NAL”) to the licensee, asserting that since 2011 the licensee had filed fourteen Children’s Television Programming Reports late, and had subsequently failed to report those violations in its license renewal application. After determining that these actions constituted violations of Sections 73.3526(e)(11)(iii) and 73.3514(a), the FCC proposed a fine of $12,000 for the fourteen late reports and another $3,000 for failing to disclose the violations in the license renewal application—for a total proposed fine of $15,000.

The licensee did not dispute the violations. Instead, it requested a waiver of the FCC’s red light rule, which bars stations from receiving certain benefits if they have an outstanding balance owed to the FCC. In October 2015, the FCC waived the red right rule to allow broadcasters that owed debts to the FCC to participate in the Spectrum Auction.

In requesting a waiver of the red light rule and deferral of the fine until after the Auction concludes, the licensee argued that while it did not owe money to the FCC when it filed its reverse auction application, the current $15,000 fine could make it subject to the red light rule in the near future because it is unable to pay that fine. The licensee explained that if it were a winning bidder in the Auction, it would then be able to pay the fine. Alternatively, the licensee requested a 30 day extension to pay the proposed fine in the event that it was unsuccessful in the Auction.

The FCC rejected the licensee’s requests. In doing so, it first noted that the FCC waived the red light rule for only a very limited purpose at the start of the Auction. Second, it stated that since the licensee admitted that it was not subject to a red light restriction when it filed its reverse auction application and is not currently subject to one, and given that the licensee had provided no documentation showing its inability to pay the fine, any request for a waiver would be prospective and speculative.

The FCC indicated the licensee therefore had two options: (i) pay the proposed fine in full, or (ii) seek a reduction or cancellation. Because the licensee did neither, and instead merely provided a statement about its inability to pay the fine without any supporting documentation, the FCC ordered the licensee to pay the $15,000 fine.

Too Soon? Radio Licensee Faces $20,000 Fine for Premature Implementation of Time Brokerage Agreement

The FCC proposed to fine a New York radio licensee $20,000 for implementing a Time Brokerage Agreement (“TBA”) that violated the Commission’s multiple ownership rule before the FCC had an opportunity to rule on the licensee’s waiver request. Continue reading →