April Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters: The FCC May Be Teleworking, But Regulation Goes On

Life has been upended for most Americans due to the spread of the coronavirus and that tumult is, of course, reaching broadcasters as it reaches others throughout the country.  As we wrote here, like many agencies and businesses, as part of its COVID-19 response, the FCC has moved most of its workforce to teleworking in an attempt to keep FCC staff and their families safe.  With most FCC forms and filings being submitted electronically, and remote work already being routine for many FCC employees, there should be minimal disruption to broadcasters’ routine daily dealings with the Commission.  Broadcasters should continue to comply with all FCC rules, including meeting filing deadlines, though it does appear that the FCC is willing to be flexible with some deadlines, especially when a broadcaster can point to virus-related reasons that the deadline cannot be met.  Check with your attorney on specific deadlines.  And check our article from yesterday highlighting some issues to consider while preparing for whatever comes next.

While there is much disruption to normal routines, the routines of regulatory life largely carry on.  For instance, before moving on to April deadlines, we should remind TV broadcasters that, if they have not already done so, their first Annual Children’s Television Report is due to be submitted to the Commission by March 30.  See our articles here and here on that new report.

Other routine FCC filings appear to be continuing without interruption, and the operation of the online public file remains generally unaffected.  That means that all full-power stations need to upload to their online public inspection file, by April 10, their Quarterly Issues Programs lists.  As we have written many times (see for example, our articles here and here), these lists are the only official Commission documents that show how a station has met its public interest obligations to its community.  Incomplete or missing quarterly lists have led to many fines in recent years.  The lists should identify the most important issues facing the station’s community and the programming broadcast by the station to address those issues.  With COVID-19 on everyone’s mind, stations should have at least one issue that they know was important to their community that can be addressed in these Quarterly Issue Programs lists.  Make sure that they are uploaded by April 10.

AM, FM, LPFM, and FM translator stations licensed to communities in Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee must file their license renewal application by April 1, 2020.  Beginning on April 1, 2020, stations that filed their renewals by that date must begin airing a series of six post-filing announcements (one announcement each on April 1April 16May 1May 16June 1, and June 16).

Full-power AM, FM, LPFM, and FM translator stations in Michigan and Ohio and full-power TV, Class A TV, TV translator, and LPTV stations in DC, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia (the first TV window in the current license renewal cycle) are due to file license renewal applications by June 1.  Before that, those stations must air a series of announcements alerting listeners to their upcoming license renewal filing.  The first of four of these pre-filing announcements begins on April 1, with further required pre-filing announcements to air on April 16May 1, and May 16.  For more on pre-filing announcements, including the timing of the announcements and sample text to use, visit the FCC’s radio license renewal page here and the TV license renewal page here.

April 1 also brings the obligation for full-power radio and television stations in DelawareIndianaKentuckyPennsylvaniaTennessee, and Texas with five or more full-time employees in their station employment unit to place in their online public file and on their station website their Annual EEO Public Inspection File Report documenting their hiring from April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020.

We have written several times before (see, for example, here, here, and here) about efforts, as part of the FCC’s media modernization initiative, to allow AM broadcasters to transition voluntarily to all-digital transmission.  Comments in this proceeding (MB Docket No. 19-311) were due March 9, and about two dozen comments were filed by interested parties.  Should you wish to file reply comments, they are due by April 6.

An auction for new FM channels is supposed to begin on April 28.  See our articles here and here on that auction.  While upfront payments in that auction were made last week, we will see if the FCC actually proceeds with the auction as scheduled in light of the current situation.  Watch for more information about the auction in coming days.

The FCC in late February released a Public Notice seeking public comment on the State of Competition in the Communications marketplace.  We wrote about the Public Notice here.  The FCC will use public comments to craft the report that it must submit to Congress every even-numbered year.  That report is then used to inform the FCC’s and Congress’s views on the communications marketplace when writing legislation and rules and regulations, including rules on broadcast ownership (see our article here).  Comments on the report are due April 13, with reply comments due by May 13.

The National Association of Broadcasters, in coordination with various other broadcast groups, and the Solicitor General of the United States, on behalf of the FCC, each filed applications in March with the U.S. Supreme Court requesting more time in which to ask the Supreme Court to review the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC.  Readers of this blog recognize this case as the one in which the Third Circuit’s decision forced the FCC to abandon its 2017 media ownership reforms and return to its prior rules.  We wrote about the different stages of this case here, here, and here.  The time extension for both parties was granted in mid-March, so NAB and the solicitor general have until April 18, 2020 to decide on whether to seek this review by the Supreme Court.  As of the publishing of this post, the Supreme Court building is closed to the public, but official business is still being conducted.

Many of us will miss one routine April event as the NAB announced that April’s NAB Show in Las Vegas is canceled.  The NAB Show has been held annually since 1923 (with one postponement in 1945 due to World War II).  In an effort to provide an avenue for exhibitors to showcase their products and services and connect virtually with industry members, the NAB will launch NAB Show Express in April.  This online-only experience will include educational content that NAB Show attendees have come to expect from the in-person gathering.  Additionally, NAB Show New York, which takes place in the fall, will be expanded.  NAB’s press release says more details will be announced in the near future.

These are just a few of the upcoming important dates broadcasters should be aware of.  Be sure to watch this blog and other industry sources and consult with your own counsel on deadlines  that may affect your operations.

Courtesy Broadcast Law Blog