Articles Posted in Political Advertising

Published on:

More than fifteen years after the adoption of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (“BCRA”) of 2002, popularly known as “McCain-Feingold,” Congress’s and the Federal Communications Commission’s interest in political broadcasting and political advertising practices remains undiminished.  Broadcast stations must meet a broad range of federal mandates, and must therefore familiarize themselves with this regulatory area, ensuring they have adequate policies and practices in place and that they monitor legislative, FCC, and Federal Election Commission developments for changes in the law.

Stations must adopt and meticulously apply political broadcasting policies that are consistent with the Communications Act and the FCC’s rules, including the all-important requirement that stations fully and accurately disclose in writing their rates, classes of advertising, and sales practices to candidates.  This information should be provided to candidates and their agents in a station’s Political Advertising Disclosure Statement.

Many of the political broadcasting regulations are grounded in the “Reasonable Access,” “Equal Opportunities,” and “Lowest Unit Charge” provisions of the Communications Act.  These elements of the law ensure that broadcast facilities are available to candidates for federal office, that broadcasters treat competing candidates equally, and that stations provide candidates with the same rates offered to their most-favored commercial advertisers during specified periods prior to an election.  As a general rule, stations may not discriminate between candidates for the same office as to station use, the amount of time given or sold, or in any other meaningful way.

These rules are enforced through fairly stringent recordkeeping requirements, with a station’s political advertising documentation required to be kept in its political file—a file that is now available online to the public as part of a station’s Public Inspection File.  Political files must contain a station’s political documentation for the past two years.  As of the publication of this Advisory, all TV political file documents going back two years and most radio political file documents going back two years are online.  However, the FCC allowed certain smaller, small market, and noncommercial radio stations a longer period of time to move their pre-March 1, 2018 political documents online.  For these stations, their political files are not required to be completely online until March 1, 2020.

Because of the transition to online political files, broadcasters must be even more diligent to ensure that all political documents are timely created and uploaded.  The past few years have seen an uptick in political complaints from watchdog organizations which now have convenient around-the-clock access to stations’ political files.  Unfortunately, many of those who have suddenly gained ready access to stations’ political files do not understand the political rules and may allege that a station’s political file is missing required information when the political file is in fact complete. It is therefore important for stations to understand their obligations so they are able to quickly respond to such allegations before they generate formal FCC complaints.  Even where the station is completely in the right, responding to FCC complaints and investigations can be expensive, and diverts the attention of station staff from operating the station and serving the public.

While this Advisory outlines the political broadcasting rules in general terms, application of the rules can be quite fact-specific and there are many additional aspects of the rules too numerous to address within this Advisory. Accordingly, stations should contact legal counsel with specific questions or problems they encounter.

The Advisory continues at 2020 Political Broadcasting Advisory.

 

Published on:

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 →

Published on:

What do these three have in common?  Well, if you are planning to be at the Radio Show in Orlando next week, you probably already know about the Pillsbury Broadcast Finance sessions at the Radio Show, with this year’s session marking the event’s 28th year.  The 2018 edition is titled Pillsbury’s Broadcast Finance 2018: Radio’s Debt Cloud Finally Lifts—a reference to the packaged bankruptcies of iHeart and Cumulus that will lighten both companies debt load in 2019, and which will hopefully allow us to turn the page on investors’ perception of radio as a slow growth, high-debt industry.

The event (September 26 from 8:30am to 10am) is often referred to as the “Radio Show Leadership Breakfast” because (1) the session panels feature some of the most influential CEOs in the radio business along with up-and-comers that will soon become the future of radio, and (2) our friends at Media Services Group are once again buying breakfast for everyone.  It’s a tough combination to beat, and perennially a standing room only event.

In addition to our CEO panelists—Caroline Beasley of Beasley Media Group, Ginny Morris of Hubbard, and Dhruv Prasad of Townsquare—Wells Fargo analyst J. Davis Hebert will be returning to launch this year’s event with his always head-turning presentation on the Financial State of the Radio Industry.  This economic snapshot (with bright colors and graphs!) provides a degree of insightful clarity rarely found in such a large and complex industry.

But what—for those of you that still remember the question that launched this post—does any of this have to do with political dollars?  Well (spoiler alert), one of the points Davis will be illustrating with his slides is a projection that 2018 will be by far the biggest political ad spending midterm election of the century, and an incredibly close second to the biggest political ad spending election of all, the 2016 general election ($2.9B vs. 2016’s $3B).  There are 34 Senate seats at stake, 11 of which are highly competitive races, 66 highly competitive House races, and 36 gubernatorial elections, with 16 states “potentially in play.”

Radio will have to fight for its share of those dollars, but in markets with highly competitive races, the influx of dollars from candidates and PACs can be so immense that ad buyers have trouble finding media that aren’t sold out as election time nears.  The competition to place ads can be so intense that I’ve been contacted by more than one noncommercial station trying to figure out how to deal with candidates that are insisting upon placing ads on their stations.

Which raises the less fun to contemplate, but equally important, matter of ensuring that your station’s political ad practices don’t leave you fighting off political advertising complaints once the election is over.  The political advertising rules for broadcasters are complex and so fact-sensitive that many an experienced broadcaster is left scratching their head trying to deal with a political ad buy.  I know those calls well, which often begin with something along the lines of “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, but I’ve never had something like this pop up before….”

That, along with the fact that stations’ Political Files are now online for political activists to scrutinize at any time, day or night, means broadcasters will again lose a lot of sleep this election season trying to ensure they are doing everything right.  In hopes of making their lives a little easier, Pillsbury released an updated version of its Political Broadcasting Advisory this year.

So if you’ve been clinging to the last edition like it’s your security blanket during election season, you can now toss it aside and get that warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from holding something that’s still warm from the laser printer (it’s much longer than you’ll ever want to read on a phone).  That way, you’ll have something to read on the plane ride to Orlando, where you will arrive well-versed in the intricacies of political ad rules compliance, and stoked for a great Radio Show.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Published on:

After the election, it was clear that we would be seeing a much different FCC in 2017. Such transitions typically take time, as a president’s nomination of new candidates to fill the Chairman’s or commissioners’ seats, along with the delay typically associated with obtaining Senate confirmation, means that a new fully-staffed FCC won’t typically be ready for action until May or June following the January change in administrations. By that time, the actions of the prior FCC have often become final and unappealable, or at least the regulated industries have already begun to adapt their operations to comply with those rules, making subsequent changes more complicated.

Continue reading →

Published on:

If trying to maintain the required paperwork for political advertising aired by your station gives you a headache, prepare for a migraine of biblical proportions.

With the departure of Commissioner Rosenworcel leaving the FCC in a 2-2 partisan split, there are really only two types of broadcast orders coming out of the FCC these days—those having the unanimous support of all four remaining commissioners, and those that can be done by the Media Bureau on delegated authority with or without the support of the two Republican commissioners.  That was evidenced twice last week.  The first was the Media Bureau’s rejection of various petitions seeking reconsideration of increased ownership reporting requirements for noncommercial stations.  That action generated an immediate response from Republican commissioners Pai and O’Rielly, who released a joint statement chiding the Media Bureau for taking the action right before the FCC changes control, and encouraging the rejected petitioners to appeal the decision to the full Commission for reversal:

The Commission’s ruling no longer enjoys the support of the majority of Commissioners—nor is there a majority that supports today’s Media Bureau decision—so it was wrong for the Bureau to bypass Commissioners and reaffirm these reporting requirements unilaterally. . . . The good news is that today’s decision need not be the final word. We encourage public broadcasters to file an application for review so that the newly constituted Commission will have an opportunity to revisit this matter. It is pointless to require board members of NCE stations to report sensitive personal information (like the last four digits of individual Social Security numbers) to the Commission and will only serve to discourage these volunteers from serving their communities.

We might now be headed down a similar path with the political file.  This past Friday evening, the Media Bureau released an Order expanding the recordkeeping associated with airing political advertising.  Perhaps simply an error, but contributing to the appearance that the Order was rushed out to beat the change in administrations, is the fact that the formatting and text of the Friday night version deteriorates badly in the last third of the Order, with no text at all in the last 49 footnotes, the paragraph numbering changing, and the text of some paragraphs being in bold type and/or all capitals.  The cleaned up version can now be found here.  The Order responds to complaints filed by activist groups against eleven different stations owned by a Who’s Who of television broadcasters, with the FCC admonishing nine of the eleven stations for political ad recordkeeping violations.  A separate order admonishing a twelfth station in response to a more recent complaint was also released Friday night.

But why would an order admonishing stations for alleged recordkeeping violations (which originated from complaints sitting at the FCC since mid-2014) need to be rushed out?  Perhaps because it also “clarifies” that the admittedly vague rules on political ad recordkeeping require much more expansive political file records than most anyone has previously suggested (at least anyone who wasn’t trying to use the records for other than their intended purpose; for example, as a proxy for overall political ad expenditures).  The clarifications apply not just to broadcasters, but to cable, DBS, and satellite radio providers as well.

Read without an understanding of the current political ad landscape, the clarifications probably seem dryly mundane.  They include the following: Continue reading →

Published on:

Television broadcasters have had to comply with an online Public Inspection File requirement since 2012.  This past January, the FCC announced that it would expand the online Public File requirement to certain broadcast radio, satellite radio, cable system, and DBS operators.  Today, the FCC released a Public Notice announcing the effective date of that new obligation.  It also announced that it has established a new filing system, the Online Public Inspection File (“OPIF”), for use by these newly-covered entities, as well as by television broadcasters who until now have been using the existing online Broadcast Public Inspection File (“BPIF”).

The entities that are newly covered by the online Public File requirement will begin use of the new system in two “waves,” with larger entities going first and having a phase-in period, and smaller entities going later, but having no phase-in period.  There are lots of dates to keep track of, which include:

  • To Be Announced:  FCC Webinar Demonstrating Use of OPIF
  • June 24, 2016:  Public Inspection File documents (including Political File documents) created on or after this date must be uploaded to OPIF by the “first wave” of newly-covered entities:
    • Commercial radio stations that have five or more full-time employees and are located in the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets
    • DBS providers
    • SDARS licensees
    • Cable systems with 1,000 or more subscribers (except with respect to the Political File, for systems with fewer than 5,000 subscribers)
  • June 24, 2016:  OPIF use by full-power and Class A television stations becomes mandatory and BPIF use is disabled
    • The FCC says it will transition television stations’ existing documents from the BPIF to the OPIF automatically by this date
  • December 24, 2016:  Public Inspection (but not Political) File documents created prior to June 24, 2016 must be uploaded to the OPIF by the “first wave” entities listed above
  • March 1, 2018:  A “second wave” of newly-covered entities must begin use of OPIF for all newly created Public Inspection and Political File documents and upload all existing Public Inspection (but not Political) File documents.  The “second wave” consists of:
    • All NCE radio stations
    • Commercial radio stations that have fewer than five full-time employees and are located in the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets
    • Commercial radio stations located outside of the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets, regardless of staff size
    • Cable systems with between 1,000 and 5,000 subscribers, with respect to newly-created Political File documents only

Commercial broadcast licensees must continue to retain letters and emails from the public at their main studios; the FCC will not let them be posted in the online public file.  However, as we noted last week, the FCC is circulating a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that proposes eliminating such letters and emails from the public file entirely.

The Public Notice announces that the OPIF will include a number of technical improvements not found in the BPIF system currently used by television licensees.  According to the FCC, these improvements are meant to allow stations to better manage their online files, including implementing APIs to enable the upload of multiple documents from a third-party website and permitting a document to be placed into multiple folders.  OPIF will also feature improved .pdf conversion software to speed uploads, and allow more flexibility to delete empty folders.

While radio stations have been nervously gearing up to face the new frontier of online public files, TV stations may be a bit surprised that the online file is changing for them as well.  Particularly surprised will be those TV stations who haven’t been following these developments and who try to log into the old public file system on July 10 to file their quarterly reports.  Whether you are a TV or radio broadcaster, or a cable, DBS, or SDARS provider, now is the time to start learning how OPIF will work; it’s not a BPIF world anymore.

Published on:

Despite a three-hour delayed opening of the federal government courtesy of the aftermath of Winter Storm Jonas, the FCC, in today’s Open Meeting, adopted rules requiring that radio broadcast stations, as well as satellite radio (i.e., Sirius/XM), direct broadcast satellite providers (i.e., DirecTV and DISH), and most cable television systems, migrate their public inspection files to an FCC-hosted online database.

The FCC has only published a brief Public Notice describing its action, but there will be more details available when the full Report and Order is released, perhaps as soon as tomorrow.  The Public Notice does however clarify that important exemptions that appeared to have gone missing when the Chairman wrote about the proposed requirement in a blog post a few weeks ago (which we discussed here) have since been added, due in  large part to the efforts of the NAB and state broadcasters associations pushing for such exemptions.  Importantly:

  • Only commercial broadcast radio stations that are in Top 50 radio markets and that have at least five full-time employees will need to comply with the new rules when they first become effective.
  • All other radio stations will have two years to commence complying with the new rules, although they are permitted to move online earlier if they wish to do so voluntarily.

The biggest news in the FCC’s Public Notice appeared to be the statement that the FCC would “permit entities that have fully transitioned to the online public file to cease maintaining a local public file, as long as they provide online access to back-up political file material via the entity’s own website if the FCC’s online file database becomes temporarily unavailable.”  For radio stations that have had to remain on constant alert to escort random station visitors inside their facilities to review the “paper” public file (with all the attendant security risks that represents for a media outlet), this regulatory relief was welcome, and had been championed in the proceeding by all 50 state broadcasters associations.

However, the celebration turned out to be potentially premature, as later in the day, the FCC released the commissioners’ individual statements, and Commissioner O’Rielly’s separate statement lamented that:

Unlike cable and satellite operators, commercial broadcast licensees will not have the immediate option of transitioning to an online-only public file, due to the Commission’s rule pertaining to the correspondence file that arguably cannot be made available online for privacy reasons. I very much appreciate the Chairman’s attention to this important issue and commitment to move forward on a proposal to eliminate correspondence file requirements so that broadcasters, too, can have an online-only option for public file requirements.

So it will take a bit longer before radio stations can say goodbye to their paper public files, but it looks those local files’ days may be numbered.

Another spot of relief is that political file material will need to be uploaded only on a going forward basis.  Historical political information can be retained in paper format until the expiration of the two-year retention period applicable to such documents.  However, stations must have a back-up political file, either in paper or on their websites, in case the FCC’s public file database goes down and the information becomes unavailable from the FCC.

As is the case for television stations, which began moving their public inspection files online in 2012, those covered by today’s order will only need to upload items that are not already electronically filed and available on the FCC’s website.  As a result, documents like ownership reports and most facility modification applications should be automatically loaded into a station’s online public file by the FCC.

The order will apparently include some accommodations for small cable systems as well.  Systems with fewer than 1,000 subscribers will be completely exempt from the online public file requirement, and systems with 1,000-5,000 subscribers will have a two-year phase-in period for their political file material.

Unfortunately, the Public Notice does not indicate exactly when the rules will take effect—an important detail for licensees operating commercial radio stations in the Top 50 markets with five or more full-time employees.  When TV station public files went online, the FCC set the deadline at 30 days following publication of a notice in the Federal Register that the Office of Management and Budget had approved the information collection aspects of the rule.  If this order follows a similar timeline, the new rules wouldn’t likely become effective until sometime in the second quarter of this year.

Over the years, many have criticized the public file as being of little interest to the viewers and listeners it was originally meant to inform, noting that it has instead become merely a source of federal revenue due to the stiff fines imposed by the FCC for violations of the public file rule.  The FCC’s view, however, is that more members of the public will review the file if it can be accessed online, following the motto “upload it, and they will come.”  Whether that is true, the FCC commissioners clearly see the online public file requirement as an effort to move the FCC’s rules into the 21st century.  Broadcasters in particular are hoping that it is the beginning of a much broader effort to bring the FCC’s rules into the 21st century, and many would like to suggest that the FCC next move on to its multiple ownership rules.

Published on:

Broadcasters let out a small sigh of relief today when the FCC made clear there is no requirement that TV stations have private investigators on staff.

With TV stations’ political files now available online, three political activist organizations have been jointly filing complaints against TV stations alleging various errors and omissions in online public file paperwork relating to political ad buys by third-party advertisers. These three organizations, the Campaign Legal Center, Sunlight Foundation, and Common Cause, expanded their campaign (no pun intended) substantially in mid-July, when they filed complaints against a Washington, DC and a Portland, Oregon TV station. Rather than paperwork problems, however, these complaints claimed that the stations had failed to accurately disclose on-air the true identity of the sponsor behind certain “Super PAC” political ads. In both cases, the complainants asserted that their own research indicated the PACs were mostly or entirely funded by a single individual, and that the stations should have therefore identified that individual rather than the PAC as the sponsor of the political spot.

While there is ample precedent for requiring broadcasters to be comfortable that the sponsorship information in a political spot is accurate, the most recent complaints concerned broadcasters for two reasons. First, there apparently was no question that the PACs had indeed been the ones to write the check for the ads and were valid legal entities, so a TV station altering the sponsorship identification text to specify the station’s opinion as to who the “real” sponsor is raises numerous legal issues, not the least of which is that the station could well get it wrong. For example, it would be a pretty brazen station that would change the sponsorship identification on Microsoft ads to “paid for by Bill Gates” on the theory that Bill Gates was the main “person” behind the organization that wrote the check. Of course, in this example the station would be doubly wrong, as Bill Gates ceased being the largest shareholder of Microsoft in May of this year, demonstrating the risk a station takes in attempting to be the arbiter of who is “behind” an advertiser.

This example also demonstrates the second issue that concerned broadcasters about the complaints. If, in the absence of an obvious sham advertiser, broadcasters had an obligation to ignore the “name on the check” and attempt to discern the actual source of the check writer’s income, they would need a full-time staff of researchers doing nothing but verifying the structure of advertisers. In addition, the airing of political ads would be perpetually delayed while stations seek adequate certainty that they have discerned the true source of all ad funds.

The result would be a no-win situation for broadcasters, who would have to expend enormous resources trying to determine where an advertiser’s money comes from, and having done that, expose themselves to both private liability (from the advertiser who wasn’t credited as the sole sponsor of the spot, as well as from the individual who was) and regulatory liability (if the government disagrees with the licensee’s sponsorship conclusions).

Today, the FCC wisely avoided placing broadcasters in that conundrum, ruling in a letter decision that:

We conclude that the complaints do not provide a sufficient showing that the stations had credible evidence casting into doubt that the identified sponsors of the advertisement were the true sponsors. As the Commission has stated previously, “unless furnished with credible, unrefuted evidence that a sponsor is acting at the direction of a third party, the broadcaster may rely on the plausible assurances of the person(s) paying for the time that they are the true sponsor.” While the complaint against [the station] presented some evidence that station employees may have come across facts in the course of news reporting on political issues that could have raised questions in their minds concerning the relationship of NextGen Climate Action Committee and Tom Steyer, we exercise our discretion not to pursue enforcement in this instance, given the need to balance the “reasonable diligence” obligations of broadcasters in identifying the sponsor of an advertisement with the sensitive First Amendment interests present here.

While it is reassuring that the FCC moved quickly to reject the complaints, today’s action leaves the political sponsorship identification waters somewhat murky. In addition to the less than comforting “we exercise our discretion not to pursue enforcement in this instance” language, the FCC proceeded to state that “[o]ur approach might have been different if the complainants had approached the stations directly to furnish them with evidence calling into question that the identified sponsors were the true sponsors.” In using this language, the FCC suggests that the only problem with the complaints “might have been” that the complainants didn’t present their evidence to the stations while the spots were still airing so that the stations could have assessed the evidence at the time and decided whether to modify the sponsorship identification.

While that ruling is generally consistent with past FCC rulings, in that a broadcaster must be presented with “credible, unrefuted evidence that a sponsor is acting at the direction of a third party,” the FCC sidestepped the equally important issue of when a PAC’s sponsorship identification may be deemed adequate, or if PAC contributors must be listed instead. As a result, broadcasters are left wondering if a sponsorship identification will be second-guessed when 80%, 90%, 95%, 99%, or some other percentage of the sponsor’s income comes from one source. Similarly, what if only 50% comes from one individual, but the other 50% comes from another individual, and the two are say, brothers? Once again, broadcasters are being asked, on pain of liability, to make disclosure decisions for PACs that are more correctly the province of the Federal Election Commission.

Of course, the sponsorship identification requirement is not limited to political ads, and the flaws in the approach suggested by the complainants seem jarringly obvious when applied in the context of a business advertiser. For example, should ads for every Mom and Pop business disclose that the real sponsor is not the business, but Mom and Pop, who gave up their vacation this year in order for the business to be able to afford broadcast advertising? Similarly, if it is not the entity writing the check for advertising that is relevant, but the principal source of its income, shouldn’t all ads placed by defense contractors need to disclose the U.S. government as the actual sponsor of their ads?

On the other hand, if, as the FCC has suggested in past sponsorship decisions, the real issue is the identity of the decision maker for that advertiser, how could a broadcaster ever know that information with adequate certainty to reject the assurances of the advertiser and take on the liability of unilaterally changing sponsorship identifications in ads?

To be clear, no one is suggesting that a sponsor should be able to avoid on-air attribution by creating a phony front organization whose faux nature is obvious to all, including the broadcaster. However, a Political Action Committee is an entity legally recognized under the law, which is also regulated by law. If more information about its contributors is deemed a public good, Congress and the Federal Election Commission have the authority and the responsibility to take action to accomplish that result. In the absence of such action, the task should not fall to broadcasters by default.

Published on:

For those who follow my speaking schedule on our CommLawCenter Events Calendar… wait, no one follows my speaking schedule? Disappointing. Well if you had, you would have known I was speaking on a pair of regulatory panels at the Texas Association of Broadcasters’ convention yesterday (incidentally, another great show this year from Oscar Rodriguez and TAB’s excellent staff).

On the first of those panels, with Stephen Lee of the FCC’s Houston Enforcement Bureau office, we discussed the FCC’s July 1st expansion of the TV online political file requirement to all TV stations. During that discussion, an audience member asked whether radio stations would someday have to put their public inspection files online as well. I noted that when the FCC moved TV public files online in August of 2012, it had indicated that it was starting with TV, but anticipated it would eventually consider moving radio public files online as well. However, in the two years since, the FCC has focused on working the bugs out of the online public file software and has not mentioned expanding the online requirement to radio.

Unknown to most, that changed unexpectedly about two hours after the panel, when the FCC released a Public Notice rapidly responding to a petition for rulemaking filed just six days earlier by the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation. The petition asked that cable and satellite providers also be required to post their political files online. While broadcasters and those three organizations (who have filed more than a dozen complaints against TV stations for alleged online political file violations in the past few months) haven’t seen eye to eye on much in the past, this might be one requirement they can agree on, albeit for very different reasons.

While the original purpose of the political file was to ensure that candidates had the information needed to enforce their rights to equal opportunity and lowest unit rate for advertising, the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation have sought to use it instead to track political spending by PACs, since that information is not available, at least in real time, from the Federal Election Commission. To make it easier for them to access this information, they demanded the FCC require that TV stations post their political files online. They have also urged the FCC to require TV stations’ political files be posted in a machine-readable format to make aggregating the information easier.

Broadcasters opposed those efforts, noting the burden of keeping the fast-changing political file up to date online, and the competitive concerns with posting sensitive ad rate data online for all the world to see. In particular, they found it competitively unfair that broadcasters were required to post their ad rate information online when competing cable and satellite providers were not.

The FCC agreed, and when it decided to require that TV stations post their public files online, it originally excluded the political file from that requirement, finding that uploading and updating the political file online would be too burdensome. However, after a change in personnel at the FCC, the agency reversed course and concluded that posting the political file online wouldn’t be burdensome after all.

Television broadcasters therefore likely welcomed yesterday’s Public Notice seeking comment on at least leveling the information playing field with cable and satellite. However, buried in the middle of the Public Notice, and completely unrelated to the petition for rulemaking on cable and satellite political files to which the Public Notice responds, is a single sentence sending chills down the collective spines of radio broadcasters:

“We also seek comment on whether the Commission should initiate a rulemaking proceeding to require broadcast radio stations to use the online public file, and on an appropriate time frame for such a requirement.”

While the need to first launch a rulemaking means that a radio online public file requirement would take at least some time to implement, it appears that it is indeed (spontaneously) back on the FCC’s agenda. With staffs that are typically much smaller than those of TV stations, radio stations would undoubtedly find an online public file requirement to be far more burdensome than it was for TV (not that TV stations found it to be a picnic either). If they don’t want to find themselves facing that very burden in the not too distant future, radio licensees will need to speak up in what most would have assumed is a completely unrelated proceeding. To the broadcaster who asked that question at yesterday’s panel, the FCC has quietly changed my answer.

Published on:

May 2014

This Advisory provides a review of the FCC’s political broadcasting regulations.

Introduction
More than ten years after adoption of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (“BCRA”) of 2002, popularly known as “McCain-Feingold,” Congress’ and the FCC’s interest in political broadcasting and political advertising practices remains undiminished. Broadcast stations must ensure that a broad range of federal mandates are met, providing “equal opportunities” to all candidates using the stations’ facilities, affording federal candidates for public office “reasonable access” and treating all candidates for public office no less favorably than the station treats its most favored advertisers. Accordingly, it is imperative that broadcasters be very familiar with what is expected of them in this regulatory area, that they have adequate policies and practices in place to ensure full compliance, and that they remain vigilant in monitoring legislative, FCC, and FEC changes in the law.

In this environment, it is critical that all stations adopt and meticulously apply political broadcasting policies that are consistent with the Communications Act and the FCC’s rules, including the all-important requirement that stations fully and accurately disclose in writing their rates, classes of advertising, and sales practices to candidates. That information should be routinely provided to candidates and their committees in each station’s carefully prepared Political Advertising Disclosure Statement.

Many of the political broadcasting regulations are grounded in the “reasonable access,” “equal opportunities,” and “lowest unit charge” (“LUC”) provisions of the Communications Act. These elements of the law ensure that broadcast facilities are available to candidates for federal offices, that broadcasters treat competing candidates equally, and that stations provide candidates with the rates they offer to their most-favored commercial advertisers during specified periods prior to an election. As a general rule, stations may not discriminate between candidates as to station use, the amount of time given or sold, or in any other meaningful way.

It is also important to note that television stations affiliated with ABC, CBS, NBC, or FOX located in the top 50 markets must keep their political records in their online public inspection file located on the FCC’s website. Beginning July 1, 2014, all other television stations must commence placing new political file documents in the political file section of their online public inspection file as well. This requirement does not apply to radio stations at this time.

While this Advisory outlines some of the general aspects of the political broadcasting rules, there are dozens of possible variations on any one issue. Accordingly, stations should contact legal counsel with any specific questions or problems they may encounter.—Article continues.

A pdf version of this entire article can be found at Political Broadcasting Advisory.