This Week in Regulation for Broadcasters:  April 8, 2024 to April 12, 2024

Here are some of the regulatory developments of significance to broadcasters from the past week, with links to where you can find more information as to how these actions may affect your operations.

  • The debate over the AM for Every Vehicle Act intensified this week, with the Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board publishing an article opposing Congressional action to require automobile manufacturers to include free over-the-air AM radio in every car.  The CEO of the National Religious Broadcasters responded in an article in Radio World magazine.  We summarized the arguments and offered more context on our Broadcast Law Blog, here
  • The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau proposed an $8,000 fine against a California radio station for failing to comply with the FCC’s contest rules.  The Bureau found that the radio station violated the rules of its contest by not delivering to a contest winner their $396 prize for over a year after the winner submitted all required paperwork.  The contest rules stated that a winner would receive their prize within 30 days of completing the paperwork.  The Bureau rejected the station’s argument that COVID-19 pandemic and a ransomware attack caused the problem as, under the rules, the prize should have been delivered no later than March 3, 2020 – before the pandemic lockdowns and before the attack occurred. 
  • The FCC’s Media Bureau granted Pinal County, Arizona’s request to modify the local markets of four Tucson, Arizona TV stations by adding the county.  Market modification allow broadcasters, satellite TV providers, and local governments to request changes to a TV station’s local market to reflect market realities for purposes of satellite carriage – enabling a station to expand its carriage rights.  The Tucson stations are assigned to the Tucson (Sierra Vista) DMA.  Pinal County – which is assigned to the Phoenix (Prescott) DMA – requested that it be assigned to the Tucson stations’ market.  The Bureau found that DISH and DIRECTV’s carriage of the Tucson stations in the county was technically feasible and weighed the five market modification factors used by the Bureau in deciding this kind of case.  The Bureau found that: (1) the stations had no historic satellite carriage in the county, which weighed against the proposed modification; (2) the stations provided local service to the county because their technical service contours reach much of the county and the stations provided extensive local programming for the county; (3) adding the county to the stations’ market would promote access to in-state broadcast signals since all of the stations’ signals originate in Arizona; (4) the stations were not uniquely qualified to serve the county due to the large number of Phoenix stations already carried there by satellite providers, but the Bureau assigned no weight to this factor as, while this factor can bolster a market modification request, the lack of unique service is not usually counted against a petitioner; and (5) there was no evidence of significant viewership of the stations in the county, but the Bureau only gave this factor limited weight – noting that it was rare to find any evidence of viewership in a satellite market modification petition, and in this case there was at least some local viewership, and likely more in parts of the county closer to Tucson.  The Bureau concluded that, on balance, there was a sufficient local relationship between the Tucson stations and Pinal County to grant the proposed modification.
  • Reply comments were filed this week in response to the FCC’s January Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing to prioritize the review of certain applications by a broadcast station providing at least three hours per week of local programming.  As we discussed here, the proposed prioritization policy is intended to incentivize stations to provide local programming – which a majority of the Commissioners suggested was necessary after the FCC’s 2017 elimination of the main studio rule (see our articles here and here).  NPR and NAB (here and here) state that the FCC’s proposal would do little to incentivize broadcasters to produce more local programming, and these commenters in addition to others (see here and here) encourage the FCC to do more to support broadcast localism such as refocusing its efforts on policies that enable broadcasters to compete in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace.  Other commenters (see here and here) disagreed on whether the three-hour local programming threshold is sufficient to encourage broadcasters to produce local programming.  Finally, one commenter stated that reinstating the main studio rule would be detrimental to rural communities and would tip the scale toward unprofitability – thereby leading to smaller, rural radio stations ceasing operations. 
  • The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau issued two Notices of Illegal Pirate Radio Broadcasting to landowners in Beacon, New York and San Francisco, California for allegedly allowing pirates to broadcast from their properties.  The Bureau warned the landowners that the FCC may issue fines of up to $2,391,097 under the PIRATE Radio Act if the FCC determines that the landowners continued to permit any individual or entity to engage in pirate radio broadcasting from their properties.
  • The FCC’s Media Bureau took two other actions against broadcasters for violations of the FCC’s rules:
    • The Bureau fined the licensee of an Alabama FM translator station $16,500 for failing to request FCC authorization for its continued use of temporary facilities for two years after an STA expired, and for operating the translator without proper FCC authorization during this period.  The licensee requested that the Bureau cancel or reduce the fine because the translator operated at a loss for two of the last three years and paying the proposed fine would threaten licensee’s ability to continue operating.  The Bureau rejected the financial hardship claim as a sale of the translator was pending and the fine constituted only a fraction of the sales price. 
    • The Bureau entered into a Consent Decree with the licensee of several North Dakota and Minnesota noncommercial TV stations which required payment of a $8,150 penalty.  The Consent Decree resolved an investigation into the licensee’s apparent failure to timely upload several of the stations’ Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists to their Online Public Inspection Files and to completely disclose the late-filed lists in the stations’ license renewal applications.  Under the Consent Decree, the licensee must also implement a compliance plan to ensure future compliance with the FCC’s rules. 
  • The FTC announced the winners of its Voice Cloning Challenge.  As we discussed here, the contest was intended to promote the development of ideas to protect from the misuse of AI-enabled voice cloning by having members of the public submit proposals for tools that can be used to prevent, monitor, and evaluate the malicious use of the technology.  There were three contest winners that will split a total of $35,000 in prize money: two small organizations focused on the development of devices and apps used for the detection of AI-enabled voice cloning, and a member of academia who developed a watermarking tool to identify voice cloning.  A fourth organization was recognized for its creation of technology that detects voice clones and audio deepfakes in real time.  The FTC noted the four winning submissions demonstrate the potential for developing multiple technologies that can mitigate the risks of AI-enabled voice cloning as there is no single solution to the problem.  The FTC also highlighted its other efforts to mitigate the harms of AI-enabled voice cloning, including proposing a comprehensive ban on impersonation fraud and affirming that the Telemarketing Sales Rule applies to AI-enabled scam calls.
  • The House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing titled “Where Are We Now: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.”  The hearing examined the purpose of Section 230 and discussed what Congress can do to modernize the law.  As we discussed here and here, Section 230 of the Communications Act was designed to insulate online platforms from liability for content created by others that is hosted on their sites.  Section 230 immunity had long been considered essential to the success of the Internet, but more recently there have been concerns that the law has had unintended consequences, such as enabling terrorist activity, promoting the exploitation of minors, and allowing discrimination and harassment.  A recording of the hearing can be found here, and the hearing memo can be found here.

On our Broadcast Law Blog, we discussed the FCC’s decision to allow FM boosters to originate limited amounts of programming that is different from what is broadcast on the booster’s primary station.