Articles Posted in Television

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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:

  • Former Broadcast Licensee Faces $144,344 Fine for Operating Kentucky LPTV Station Without a License for 18 Years
  • FCC Proposes $20,000 Fine Against California Noncommercial TV Station for Public File and Related Violations
  • FCC Agrees to Reduce Fines for Untimely Children’s Television Programming Reports Based on Inability to Pay

A “Harmless Chihuahua” No More: FCC Proposes Maximum Fine for Operating Low Power TV Station Without a License

Two individuals are facing a $144,344 proposed fine for operating a Kentucky low power TV (“LPTV”) station without a license for the last 18 years. Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits any person from operating any apparatus for the transmission of energy, communications, or signals by radio within the United States without FCC authorization. Additionally, Section 74.765 of the FCC’s Rules requires licensees to ensure that a copy of the license is placed in the station’s records and is available for public inspection.

The FCC initially authorized construction of the station in 1987, and the station’s license application was granted in 1990. In April 1993, the FCC granted an application to renew the station’s license for a term expiring August 1, 1998. However, no subsequent license renewal application was ever filed for the station. In April 2004, the FCC sent a letter to the station stating it had not received a license renewal application, and set a 30 day deadline to prove that a renewal application had been filed before the FCC would update its CDBS database to reflect that the license had been cancelled. After receiving no response, the FCC updated CDBS to list the station’s license as “cancelled”.

The FCC later came to learn through an unrelated Experimental STA application that the station was still operating. As a result, in August 2016, FCC agents traveled to the station’s formerly authorized antenna site, where a technician confirmed that the station was, in fact, still operating. The agents then traveled to the station’s studio and spoke with an individual who identified himself as the “operations manager”. The operations manager was unable to provide the agents with evidence of a valid license to operate the station, but asserted that the station’s license renewal application had been filed in 1993, implied that the FCC lost the 1993 filing, and that, as a result, the license remained in effect. The agents informed the operations manager that a current, valid license was necessary to operate the station and that, without one, the station’s transmissions must immediately stop. The agents also issued a Notice of Unlicensed Radio Operation (“NOURO”) stating in bold, capital letters: “UNLICENSED OPERATION OF THIS RADIO STATION MUST BE DISCONTINUED IMMEDIATELY.”

In response to the NOURO, the operations manager reiterated the argument he made to the FCC agents at the station. In addition to asserting that the station never received confirmation of grant of the 1993 renewal, the response stated the station operators had never received any other communication from the FCC about the station, and CDBS showed “that the [1993] renewal was granted on 7/27/1993 without an expiration.” The response argued that the failure to file a renewal application in 1998 should therefore be excused. Further, the response indicated that despite the NOURO’s “request” to cease operations, the station remained on air so as to not deprive its viewers of “their only source of news and other events.” FCC agents returned to the station’s antenna site in September and confirmed that the station was still transmitting.

Consequently, the FCC determined that the station operators had willfully and repeatedly violated Section 301 of the Act. According to FCC records, the Media Bureau mailed the 1993 license renewal to the station’s address of record. The FCC emphasized, however, that regardless of whether the license renewal was actually received, licensees are responsible for knowing their obligations, including their duty to seek timely license renewals. In this regard, the FCC noted that license renewal reminders are “merely provided as a courtesy.” The FCC also rejected the operators’ CDBS argument because (1) CDBS did not exist in 1998, so the station could not have relied on it at the time the license renewal was due, and (2) both CDBS and the 1993 renewal authorization state that the license expired August 1, 1998.

The FCC’s base fine for operation of a station without authorization is $10,000 for each violation or each day of a continuing violation. Citing the “egregious” and “longstanding” nature of the apparent violations, the FCC proposed to fine the station operators $10,000 for each of the 22 days between the day FCC agents spoke to the station’s operations manager in August 2016, and when agents confirmed that the station was still transmitting in September 2016, for a total proposed fine of $220,000. However, because the Communications Act sets the maximum fine amount for continuing violations arising from a single act or failure to act at $144,344, the FCC capped the proposed fine at $144,344. The FCC noted that, absent the statutory maximum, an upward adjustment would have been warranted because the station was operated for more than 18 years after its license expired, and more than 12 years after the FCC declared the station’s license cancelled.

In a separate statement, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly supported the proposed fine, but was appalled that the station “[got] away with operating a pirate TV station for almost twenty years.” He lamented that under past leadership the FCC had “been reduced to a sometimes annoying, sometimes sleepy, but ultimately harmless Chihuahua when it came to protecting broadcast spectrum licenses,” but hoped that pirate operators were now on notice that the FCC “can and will turn that situation around.”

California Noncommercial TV Station Licensee Faces $20,000 Proposed Fine for Public Inspection File and Related Violations

The FCC proposed a $20,000 fine against a California noncommercial educational (“NCE”) TV station licensee for public inspection file and related violations.

Section 73.3527 of the FCC’s Rules requires NCE licensees to maintain a public inspection file containing specific types of information related to station operations, and subsection 73.3527(b)(2) requires NCE stations to upload most of that information to the FCC-hosted online public inspection file. Among the materials required to be in the file are a station’s Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists, which must be retained until final FCC action on the station’s next license renewal application. Issues/Programs Lists detail programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding quarter. Section 73.3527 also requires stations to keep in their public file for two years from the date of broadcast a list of donors that have supported specific programs. Continue reading →

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May 2017

This Broadcast Station Advisory is directed to radio and television stations in Arizona, the District of Columbia, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming, and highlights the upcoming deadlines for compliance with the FCC’s EEO Rule.

June 1, 2017 is the deadline for broadcast stations licensed to communities in Arizona, the District of Columbia, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming to place their Annual EEO Public File Report in their public inspection file and post the report on their station website. In addition, certain of these stations, as detailed below, must electronically file their EEO Mid-term Report on FCC Form 397 by June 1, 2017.

Under the FCC’s EEO Rule, all radio and television station employment units (“SEUs”), regardless of staff size, must afford equal opportunity to all qualified persons and practice nondiscrimination in employment.

In addition, those SEUs with five or more full-time employees (“Nonexempt SEUs”) must also comply with the FCC’s three-prong outreach requirements. Specifically, Nonexempt SEUs must (i) broadly and inclusively disseminate information about every full-time job opening, except in exigent circumstances, (ii) send notifications of full-time job vacancies to referral organizations that have requested such notification, and (iii) earn a certain minimum number of EEO credits, based on participation in various non-vacancy-specific outreach initiatives (“Menu Options”) suggested by the FCC, during each of the two-year segments (four segments total) that comprise a station’s eight-year license term. These Menu Option initiatives include, for example, sponsoring job fairs, participating in job fairs, and having an internship program.

Nonexempt SEUs must prepare and place their Annual EEO Public File Report in the public inspection files and on the websites of all stations comprising the SEU (if they have a website) by the anniversary date of the filing deadline for that station’s license renewal application. The Annual EEO Public File Report summarizes the SEU’s EEO activities during the previous 12 months, and the licensee must maintain adequate records to document those activities. Nonexempt SEUs must submit to the FCC the two most recent Annual EEO Public File Reports with their license renewal applications.

In addition, all TV station SEUs with five or more full-time employees and all radio station SEUs with more than ten full-time employees must submit to the FCC the two most recent Annual EEO Public File Reports at the midpoint of their eight-year license term along with FCC Form 397 – the Broadcast Mid-Term EEO Report.

Exempt SEUs – those with fewer than five full-time employees – do not have to prepare or file Annual or Mid-Term EEO Reports.

For a detailed description of the EEO rule and practical assistance in preparing a compliance plan, broadcasters should consult The FCC’s Equal Employment Opportunity Rules and Policies – A Guide for Broadcasters published by Pillsbury’s Communications Practice Group. This publication is available at: http://www.pillsburylaw.com/publications/broadcasters-guide-to-fcc-equal-employment-opportunity-rules-policies.

Deadline for the Annual EEO Public File Report for Nonexempt Radio and Television SEUs

Consistent with the above, June 1, 2017 is the date by which Nonexempt SEUs of radio and television stations licensed to communities in the states identified above, including Class A television stations, must (i) place their Annual EEO Public File Report in the public inspection files of all stations comprising the SEU, and (ii) post the Report on the websites, if any, of those stations. LPTV stations are also subject to the broadcast EEO rules, even though LPTV stations are not required to maintain a public inspection file. Instead, these stations must maintain a “station records” file containing the station’s authorization and other official documents and must make it available to an FCC inspector upon request. Therefore, if an LPTV station has five or more full-time employees, or is part of a Nonexempt SEU, it must prepare an Annual EEO Public File Report and place it in the station records file.

These Reports will cover the period from June 1, 2016 through May 31, 2017. However, Nonexempt SEUs may “cut off” the reporting period up to ten days before May 31, so long as they begin the next annual reporting period on the day after the cut-off day used in the immediately preceding Report. For example, if the Nonexempt SEU uses the period June 1, 2016 through May 21, 2017 for this year’s report (cutting it off up to ten days prior to May 31, 2017), then next year, the Nonexempt SEU must use a period beginning May 22, 2017 for its report. Continue reading →

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Ever since the idea of holding an incentive auction to reclaim and repurpose broadcast spectrum for new wireless uses first surfaced, a major concern has been how to balance full power stations’ need to replicate their pre-auction signal coverage with low power television (LPTV) and TV Translator stations’ need for displacement channels in the remaining television band.  Throughout the process, the FCC has announced a number of initiatives aimed at balancing those needs.

Included among these efforts is the FCC’s creation of a new category of translator for full-power TV stations to fill in loss areas, a special filing window for LPTV, TV Translator and analog-to-digital replacement translator stations seeking displacement channels, and rules permitting LPTV and TV Translator stations to channel share, both among themselves and with full-power stations.  Until last week, stations in these secondary services have had to stand on the sidelines and wait to see how these initiatives play out.  That changed last Friday when the FCC released a detailed Public Notice outlining procedures and timelines applicable to LPTV, TV Translator, and replacement translator stations during the repack.

Most significantly, the FCC announced its intent to open a Special Displacement Window in the first quarter of 2018.  The FCC stated that it anticipates releasing a public notice in November or December of this year that will give 60 days’ warning of the opening of the Special Displacement Window, which will remain open for 30 days.

Only LPTV, TV Translator, and analog-to-digital replacement translator stations that were “operating” on April 13, 2017 will be eligible to file displacement applications in the window.  To be deemed an “operating” station, the station must have constructed its facilities and filed a license to cover application by that date.  These stations can file a displacement application in the Special Displacement Window if they are displaced by a full-power or Class A TV station being repacked in Channels 2 through 36, or if they are on a channel higher than 36 and are displaced by the flexible uses envisioned by the FCC for the portion of the broadcast band repurposed via the auction.

In the filing window, applicants will have to provide interference protection to other users in the repacked TV Band and in adjacent bands, including land mobile operations, existing LPTV, TV translator and analog-to-digital replacement translator stations, full-power and Class A TV stations that were not repacked, repacked full-power and Class A TV stations as specified in the FCC’s Closing and Reassignment Public Notice, and full-power and Class A television station facilities specified in applications filed in either of the two priority windows occurring prior to the Special Displacement Window.

Helping to balance those restrictions, displaced stations may specify as their displacement channel the pre-auction channel of a station being repacked or which relinquished its spectrum, subject to the condition that operations on the displacement channel cannot commence until the full-power or Class A TV station currently occupying the channel vacates it.  To assist stations in developing their displacement proposals, the November/December public notice announcing the Special Displacement Window will also contain updated channel availability information identifying locations and channels that displaced stations cannot propose in their displacement applications.

To avoid a “race to the courthouse” when the window opens, all applications filed in the Special Displacement Window will be deemed to have been filed on the last day of the window for purposes of determining mutual exclusivity.  In other words, an application filed on the first day of the window will have no higher processing priority than an application filed on the last day of the window.  In cases of mutual exclusivity, the parties will be given an opportunity to resolve the mutual exclusivity among themselves via engineering amendments or settlements.

If applications remain mutually exclusive after the settlement period, the FCC will give priority to any application filed by a full-power TV station for displacement of an analog-to-digital replacement translator station or for a new digital-to-digital replacement translator station.  The analog-to-digital replacement translator stations were authorized to fill in areas of a full-power station’s analog contour that were lost in the digital transition.  The digital-to-digital replacement translator stations are a new class of station intended to serve a similar role in filling in areas of a full-power TV station’s digital contour that its repacked facilities can no longer reach.

Full-power TV stations can apply for new digital-to-digital replacement translator stations beginning with the opening of the Special Displacement Window and continuing through July 13, 2021.  Whenever filed, digital-to-digital replacement translator applications will have priority over all prior new, minor change, and displacement applications filed by LPTV and TV Translator stations.  If applying this priority does not resolve mutual exclusivity among applications filed in the Special Displacement Window, the FCC will resort to conducting an auction among the applicants. 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:

  • Michigan Class A TV Station Agrees to Pay $45,000 for Numerous Children’s Programming and Public Inspection File Violations
  • New York TV Station Agrees to $10,000 Consent Decree to End FCC Investigation into Indecency Allegations
  • California Radio Licensee Agrees to $8,000 Consent Decree for Unauthorized Transfer of Control

Michigan Class A TV Station Acknowledges Children’s Programming and Public Inspection File Problems

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with a Class A TV station in Michigan to resolve an investigation into violations of the Children’s Television Act (“CTA”) and the FCC’s public inspection file rule.

The CTA, as implemented by Section 73.671 of the FCC’s Rules, requires full power TV stations to provide sufficient programming designed to serve the educational and informational needs of children, known as “Core Programming”, and Section 73.6026 extends this requirement to Class A stations. The FCC’s license renewal application processing guidelines direct Media Bureau staff to approve the CTA portion of any license renewal application where the licensee shows that it has aired an average of 3 hours per week of Core Programming per program stream. Staff can also approve the CTA portion of a license renewal application where the licensee demonstrates that it has aired a package of different types of educational and informational programming that, even if less than 3 hours of Core Programming per week, shows a level of commitment to educating and informing children equivalent to airing 3 hours per week of Core Programming. Applications that do not satisfy the processing guidelines are referred to the full Commission, where the licensee will have a chance to demonstrate its compliance with the CTA.

Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules requires commercial broadcasters to maintain public inspection files containing specific types of information related to station operations, and subsection 73.3526(b)(2) requires TV and non-exempt radio stations to upload most of that information to the FCC-hosted online public inspection file. For example, subsection 73.3526(e)(11) requires TV stations to place in their public inspection file (i) Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists describing the “programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period” and (ii) certifications of compliance with the commercial limits on children’s programming. In addition, subsection 73.3526(e)(17) requires Class A stations to place in their public files documentation demonstrating compliance with Class A eligibility requirements.

In May 2013, the station filed its license renewal application. Upon review of the station’s public file, the FCC found that the station had failed to timely file Children’s TV Programming Reports for 35 quarters, and failed to place in its public file numerous required documents, such as Issues/Programs Lists, Commercial Limit Certifications, and Class A Eligibility Certifications. In May 2016, upon request of the FCC, the station amended its renewal application to acknowledge and describe the violations. The station made additional clarifications to the application in November 2016.

The Media Bureau’s audit of the station’s children’s programming revealed that the station failed to meet the three hour Core Programming processing guideline for ten quarters, for an aggregate shortfall of 110 hours, with quarterly deficiencies ranging from one hour to 22 hours. As a result, the station’s application was referred to the full Commission for consideration.

The station subsequently entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC to resolve the investigation into public file and children’s programming violations. As part of the Consent Decree, the station admitted liability, agreed to make a $45,000 settlement payment to the government, and agreed to implement a compliance plan. In turn, the FCC agreed to grant the station’s license renewal application for a short-term period of two years instead of the regular eight-year term.

Under the compliance plan, the station must, among other things, designate a compliance officer responsible for compliance with the FCC’s Rules, air at least four hours of Core Programming per week (as averaged over a six-month period), provide training to staff on compliance with the FCC’s Rules, and work with outside legal counsel to obtain guidance on FCC compliance issues. The compliance plan will stay in effect until final FCC action is taken on the station’s next license renewal application.

New York TV Station Agrees to $10,000 Consent Decree to End FCC Investigation into Indecency Allegations

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with a New York TV station to resolve an investigation into whether the station aired indecent programming.

Section 73.3999 of the FCC’s Rules restricts the broadcast of indecent material between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. In addition, Section 73.1217 (the “broadcast hoax rule”) forbids the broadcast of “false information concerning a crime or catastrophe if: (a) The [station] knows the information is false; (b) It is foreseeable that broadcast of the information will cause substantial public harm; and (3) Broadcast of the information does in fact cause substantial public harm.”

Continue reading →

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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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To use a metaphor those headed to Vegas for the NAB Show will appreciate, two of the three wheels on the Spectrum Repack slot machine had stopped spinning, and all eyes have since been anxiously watching that third and final wheel.  The first stopped spinning on January 13, 2017 when the Reverse Auction concluded.  The second stopped on March 30, 2017 when the Assignment Phase of the Forward Auction came to an end.  The third wheel stopped this afternoon with the release of the FCC’s long-awaited Incentive Auction Closing and Channel Reassignment Public Notice.  That Public Notice formally marks the end of the Incentive Auction, and publicly reveals which stations got cherries and which stations got lemons in the auction and repack.

According to the FCC, there were 175 TV stations that sold spectrum in the auction for just over $10 Billion in total.  Of these 175, 30 are moving to a VHF channel and 133 have indicated that they will be channel sharing with a station that did not sell spectrum in the auction.  That suggests only twelve stations nationwide sold their spectrum with the intent to go dark permanently.

For those stations that did not sell spectrum in the auction, the FCC indicates that 957 of them are being involuntarily moved to new channels.  As a result, the Spectrum Repack looks like it will be every bit as complex and all-encompassing as many had feared.

In that regard, the Public Notice also locks in the deadlines broadcasters must meet for the 39-month Spectrum Repack, officially launching the rush to secure equipment and services needed by each repacked TV station to build out new transmitting facilities. The FCC had addressed in general terms many of the repack deadlines in various notices and webinars, but nearly all were geared to the release date of the Public Notice.  As a result, while we generally knew how long the FCC was allotting for various steps of the repack, they all remained moving targets until today’s release of the Public Notice.

With the Public Notice now in hand, we have assembled below the key deadlines. 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:

  • Failing to Make Timely Uploads to Online Public File Costs TV Station $13,500
  • FCC Fines Church’s Pirate Radio Station $25,000
  • FCC Proposes $7,000 Fine Against TV Station for Public File Violations

Slow Upload Speed: TV Licensee Agrees to Pay $13,500 to Settle FCC Investigation into Online Public File Violations

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with an Iowa TV station to resolve an investigation into the licensee’s failure to timely upload required documents to its online public inspection file.

Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules requires commercial broadcasters to maintain public inspection files containing specific types of information related to station operations, and subsection 73.3526(b)(2) requires TV and non-exempt radio licensees to upload most of that information to the FCC-hosted online public inspection file. For example, subsection 73.3526(e)(7) requires broadcasters to retain records that document compliance with equal employment opportunity rules; subsection 73.3526(e)(10) requires broadcasters to maintain materials relating to FCC investigations or complaints; and subsection 73.3526(e)(11) requires TV stations to place in their public inspection file (i) Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists describing the “programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period” and (ii) certifications of compliance with the commercial limits on children’s programming.

In October 2013, the licensee filed its license renewal application, certifying that it timely placed in its public file all required documentation. However, an FCC investigation found that, with the exception of electronically submitted documents that the FCC automatically places in a station’s online file, the station’s online file was empty, meaning the licensee failed to upload any of the other required documents.

The FCC contacted the licensee in March 2014 to request that the station upload all required documents, and the licensee subsequently complied. However, the FCC discovered in January 2016 that the licensee failed to upload Issues/Program Lists and Commercial Limits Certifications for four quarters in 2014 and 2015. The FCC again contacted the licensee, at which point the licensee uploaded the missing documents. Still, in April 2016, the FCC found yet again that the licensee had failed to upload a required Issues/Programs List and commercial limits certification.

The licensee subsequently entered into a Consent Decree with the FCC to resolve the investigation into these public inspection file violations. As part of the Consent Decree, the licensee admitted liability, agreed to make a payment of $13,500 to the U.S. Treasury, and agreed to implement a compliance plan. The compliance plan must, among other things, designate a compliance officer responsible for ensuring compliance with the FCC’s Rules. The compliance officer must conduct training for all station employees and management at least once every 12 months. The compliance plan will remain in effect until FCC action on the station’s next license renewal application (which will be filed in 2021) is complete. Ultimately, the FCC decided to grant the station’s pending license renewal application, provided that the licensee makes the $13,500 payment on time and in full.

Praying with Fire: Church’s Pirate Radio Station Fined $25,000

After repeated warnings, the FCC fined the operators of an unlicensed radio station in California $25,000. Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits any person from operating any apparatus for the transmission of energy, communications, or signals by radio within the United States without FCC authorization. Continue reading →

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The next Children’s Television Programming Report must be filed with the FCC and placed in stations’ public inspection files by April 10, 2017, reflecting programming aired during the months of January, February, and March 2017.

Statutory and Regulatory Requirements

As a result of the Children’s Television Act of 1990 (“Act”) and the FCC rules adopted under the Act, full power and Class A television stations are required, among other things, to: (1) limit the amount of commercial matter aired during programs originally produced and broadcast for an audience of children 12 years of age and under, and (2) air programming responsive to the educational and informational needs of children 16 years of age and under.

These two obligations, in turn, require broadcasters to comply with two paperwork requirements. Specifically, stations must: (1) place in their online public inspection file one of four prescribed types of documentation demonstrating compliance with the commercial limits in children’s television, and (2) submit FCC Form 398, which requests information regarding the educational and informational programming the station has aired for children 16 years of age and under. Form 398 must be filed electronically with the FCC. The FCC automatically places the electronically filed Form 398 filings into the respective station’s online public inspection file. However, each station should confirm that has occurred to ensure that its online public inspection file is complete. The base fine for noncompliance with the requirements of the FCC’s Children’s Television Programming Rule is $10,000.

Broadcasters must file their reports via the Licensing and Management System (LMS), accessible at https://enterpriseefiling.fcc.gov/dataentry/login.html.

Noncommercial Educational Television Stations

Because noncommercial educational television stations are precluded from airing commercials, the commercial limitation rules do not apply to such stations. Accordingly, noncommercial television stations have no obligation to place commercial limits documentation in their public inspection files. Similarly, though noncommercial stations are required to air programming responsive to the educational and informational needs of children 16 years of age and under, they do not need to complete FCC Form 398. They must, however, maintain records of their own in the event their performance is challenged at license renewal time. In the face of such a challenge, a noncommercial station will be required to have documentation available that demonstrates its efforts to meet the needs of children.

Commercial Television Stations

Commercial Limitations

The Commission’s rules require that stations limit the amount of “commercial matter” appearing in children’s programs to 12 minutes per clock hour on weekdays and 10.5 minutes per clock hour on the weekend. In addition to commercial spots, website addresses displayed during children’s programming and promotional material must comply with a four-part test or they will be considered “commercial matter” and counted against the commercial time limits. In addition, the content of some websites whose addresses are displayed during programming or promotional material are subject to host-selling limitations. Program promos also qualify as “commercial matter” unless they promote children’s educational/informational programming or other age-appropriate programming appearing on the same channel. Licensees must prepare supporting documents to demonstrate compliance with these limits on a quarterly basis.

For commercial stations, proof of compliance with these commercial limitations must be placed in the online public inspection file by the tenth day of the calendar quarter following the quarter during which the commercials were aired. Consequently, this proof of compliance should be placed in your online public inspection file by April 10, 2017, covering programming aired during the months of January, February, and March 2017.

Documentation to show that the station has been complying with this requirement can be maintained in several different forms:

  • Stations may, but are not obligated to, keep program logs in order to comply with the commercial limits rules. If the logs are kept to satisfy the documentation requirement, they must be placed in the station’s public inspection file. The logs should be reviewed by responsible station officials to be sure they reflect compliance with both the numerical and content requirements contained in the rules.
  • Tapes of children’s programs will also satisfy the rules, provided they are placed in the station’s public inspection file and are available for viewing by those who visit the station to examine the public inspection file. The FCC has not addressed how this approach can be utilized since the advent of online public inspection files.
  • A station may create lists of the number of commercial minutes per hour aired during identified children’s programs. The lists should be reviewed on a routine basis by responsible station officials to be sure they reflect compliance with both the numerical and content requirements contained in the rule.
  • The station and its network/syndicators may certify that as a standard practice, they format and air the identified children’s programs so as to comply with the statutory limit on commercial matter, and provide a detailed listing of any instances of noncompliance. Again, the certification should be reviewed on a routine basis by responsible station officials to ensure that it is accurate and that the station did not preempt programming or take other action that might affect the accuracy of the network/syndicator certification.
  • Regardless of the method a station uses to show compliance with the commercial limits, it must identify the specific programs that it believes are subject to the rules, and must list any instances of noncompliance. As noted above, commercial limits apply only to programs originally produced and broadcast primarily for an audience of children ages 12 and under.

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The next Quarterly Issues/Programs List (“Quarterly List”) must be placed in stations’ public inspection files by April 10, 2017, reflecting information for the months of January, February and March 2017.

Content of the Quarterly List

The FCC requires each broadcast station to air a reasonable amount of programming responsive to significant community needs, issues, and problems as determined by the station. The FCC gives each station the discretion to determine which issues facing the community served by the station are the most significant and how best to respond to them in the station’s overall programming.

To demonstrate a station’s compliance with this public interest obligation, the FCC requires the station to maintain and place in the public inspection file a Quarterly List reflecting the “station’s most significant programming treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period.” By its use of the term “most significant,” the FCC has noted that stations are not required to list all responsive programming, but only that programming which provided the most significant treatment of the issues identified.

Given that program logs are no longer mandated by the FCC, the Quarterly Lists may be the most important evidence of a station’s compliance with its public service obligations. The lists also provide important support for the certification of Class A television station compliance discussed below. We therefore urge stations not to “skimp” on the Quarterly Lists, and to err on the side of over-inclusiveness. Otherwise, stations risk a determination by the FCC that they did not adequately serve the public interest during the license term. Stations should include in the Quarterly Lists as much issue-responsive programming as they feel is necessary to demonstrate fully their responsiveness to community needs. Taking extra time now to provide a thorough Quarterly List will help reduce risk at license renewal time.

It should be noted that the FCC has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the Quarterly Lists and often brings enforcement actions against stations that do not have fully complete Quarterly Lists or that do not timely place such lists in their public inspection file. The FCC’s base fine for missing Quarterly Lists is $10,000.

Preparation of the Quarterly List

The Quarterly Lists are required to be placed in the public inspection file by January 10, April 10, July 10, and October 10 of each year. The next Quarterly List is required to be placed in stations’ public inspection files by April 10, 2017, covering the period from January 1, 2017 through March 31, 2017. All TV stations, as well as commercial radio stations in the Top-50 Nielsen Audio markets that have five or more full-time employees, must post their Quarterly Lists to the online public inspection file. Continue reading →

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March 2017

This Broadcast Station Advisory is directed to radio and television stations in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas, and highlights the upcoming deadlines for compliance with the FCC’s EEO Rule.

April 1, 2017 is the deadline for broadcast stations licensed to communities in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas to place their Annual EEO Public File Report in their public inspection file and post the report on their station website. In addition, certain of these stations, as detailed below, must electronically file their EEO Mid-term Report on FCC Form 397 by April 3, 2017 (as April 1 falls on a weekend).

Under the FCC’s EEO Rule, all radio and television station employment units (“SEUs”), regardless of staff size, must afford equal opportunity to all qualified persons and practice nondiscrimination in employment.

In addition, those SEUs with five or more full-time employees (“Nonexempt SEUs”) must also comply with the FCC’s three-prong outreach requirements. Specifically, Nonexempt SEUs must (i) broadly and inclusively disseminate information about every full-time job opening, except in exigent circumstances, (ii) send notifications of full-time job vacancies to referral organizations that have requested such notification, and (iii) earn a certain minimum number of EEO credits, based on participation in various non-vacancy-specific outreach initiatives (“Menu Options”) suggested by the FCC, during each of the two-year segments (four segments total) that comprise a station’s eight-year license term. These Menu Option initiatives include, for example, sponsoring job fairs, participating in job fairs, and having an internship program.

Nonexempt SEUs must prepare and place their Annual EEO Public File Report in the public inspection files and on the websites of all stations comprising the SEU (if they have a website) by the anniversary date of the filing deadline for that station’s license renewal application. The Annual EEO Public File Report summarizes the SEU’s EEO activities during the previous 12 months, and the licensee must maintain adequate records to document those activities. Nonexempt SEUs must submit to the FCC the two most recent Annual EEO Public File Reports with their license renewal applications.

In addition, all TV station SEUs with five or more full-time employees and all radio station SEUs with more than ten full-time employees must submit to the FCC the two most recent Annual EEO Public File Reports at the midpoint of their eight-year license term along with FCC Form 397 – the Broadcast Mid-Term EEO Report.

Exempt SEUs – those with fewer than five full-time employees – do not have to prepare or file Annual or Mid-Term EEO Reports.

For a detailed description of the EEO rule and practical assistance in preparing a compliance plan, broadcasters should consult The FCC’s Equal Employment Opportunity Rules and Policies – A Guide for Broadcasters published by Pillsbury’s Communications Practice Group. This publication is available at: https://www.pillsburylaw.com/publications/broadcasters-guide-to-fcc-equal-employment-opportunity-rules-policies.

Deadline for the Annual EEO Public File Report for Nonexempt Radio and Television SEUs

Consistent with the above, April 1, 2017 is the date by which Nonexempt SEUs of radio and television stations licensed to communities in the states identified above, including Class A television stations, must (i) place their Annual EEO Public File Report in the public inspection files of all stations comprising the SEU, and (ii) post the Report on the websites, if any, of those stations. LPTV stations are also subject to the broadcast EEO rules, even though LPTV stations are not required to maintain a public inspection file. Instead, these stations must maintain a “station records” file containing the station’s authorization and other official documents and must make it available to an FCC inspector upon request. Therefore, if an LPTV station has five or more full-time employees, or is part of a Nonexempt SEU, it must prepare an Annual EEO Public File Report and place it in the station records file.

These Reports will cover the period from April 1, 2016 through March 31, 2017. However, Nonexempt SEUs may “cut off” the reporting period up to ten days before March 31, so long as they begin the next annual reporting period on the day after the cut-off day used in the immediately preceding Report. For example, if the Nonexempt SEU uses the period April 1, 2016 through March 21, 2017 for this year’s report (cutting it off up to ten days prior to March 31, 2017), then next year, the Nonexempt SEU must use a period beginning March 22, 2017 for its report. Continue reading →