Communications Regulation

Communications Regulation in the United States

FCC Regulation of Television and Radio Broadcasting Operations

Television and radio broadcasting operations in the United States are subject to regulation by the FCC under the Communications Act of 1934, as amended (which we refer to as the “Communications Act”). Under authority of the Communications Act of 1934, the FCC, among other things, assigns frequency bands for broadcast and other uses; determines the location, frequency and operating power of stations; grants permits and licenses to construct and operate television and radio stations on particular frequencies; issues, revokes, modifies and renews radio and television broadcast station licenses; regulates equipment used by stations; determines whether to approve changes in ownership or control of station licenses; regulates the content of some forms of programming; adopts and implements regulations and policies which directly or indirectly affect the ownership, operations and profitability of broadcasting stations; and has the power to impose penalties for violations of its rules.

Licensed broadcast stations must pay FCC regulatory and application fees and comply with various rules promulgated under the Communications Act that regulate, among other things, political advertising, sponsorship identification, closed captioning of certain television programming, obscene, indecent and profane broadcasts, and technical operations, including limits on radio frequency radiation. Additionally, the FCC’s rules require licensees to implement equal employment opportunity outreach programs and maintain records and make filings with the FCC evidencing such efforts.

Communications Act and specific FCC rules and policies

Failure to observe the provisions of the Communications Act and the FCC’s rules and policies can result in the imposition of various sanctions for companies, including monetary forfeitures, the grant of “short-term” (less than the maximum term) license renewals or, for particularly egregious violations, the denial of a license renewal application, the revocation of a license or the withholding of approval for acquisition of additional broadcast properties.

The Communications Act permits the operation of a broadcast station only in accordance with a license issued by the FCC upon a finding that the grant of a license would serve the public interest, convenience and necessity. The FCC grants broadcast licenses for specified periods of time and, upon application, may renew the licenses for additional terms (ordinarily for the full term of eight years). Generally, the FCC renews a broadcast license upon a finding that

  • the broadcast station has served the public interest, convenience and necessity;
  • there have been no serious violations by the licensee of the Communications Act or the FCC’s rules; and
  • there have been no other violations by the licensee of the Communications Act or other FCC rules which, taken together, indicate a pattern of abuse.

After considering these factors, the FCC may renew a broadcast station’s license, either with conditions or without, or it may designate the renewal application for hearing.

Ownership Restrictions

The Communications Act and FCC rules and policies include a number of limitations regarding the number and reach of broadcast stations that any person or entity may own, directly or by attribution. FCC approval is also required for transfers of control and assignments of station licenses. A person or entity requesting FCC approval to acquire a radio or television station license must demonstrate that the acquisition complies with the FCC’s ownership rules or that a waiver of the rules is in the public interest.

The FCC is required to review quadrennially the following media ownership rules and to modify, repeal or retain any rules as it determines to be in the public interest: the newspaper broadcast cross-ownership rule; the local radio ownership rule; the radio-television cross-ownership rule; the dual network rule; and the local television ownership rule. The FCC’s ownership rules that are currently in effect are briefly summarized below.

Newspaper-Broadcast Cross-Ownership Rule

Under the currently effective newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership Rule, unless grandfathered or subject to waiver, no party can have an attributable interest in both a daily English-language newspaper and either a television station or a radio station in the same market if specified signal contours of the television station or the radio station encompass the entire community in which the newspaper is published.

Local Radio Ownership Rule

The local radio ownership rule limits the number of radio stations an entity may own in a given market depending on the size of the radio market. Specifically, in a radio market with 45 or more commercial and noncommercial radio stations, a party may own, operate, or control up to eight commercial radio stations, not more than five of which are in the same service (AM or FM). In a radio market with between 30 and 44 radio stations, a party may own, operate, or control up to seven commercial radio stations, not more than four of which are in the same service. In a radio market with between 15 and 29 radio stations, a party may own, operate, or control up to six commercial radio stations, not more than four of which are in the same service. In a radio market with 14 or fewer radio stations, a party may own, operate, or control up to five commercial radio stations, not more than three of which are in the same service, except that a party may not own, operate, or control more than 50% of the stations in the market, except for combinations of one AM and one FM station, which are permitted in any size market.

For stations located in a market in which the Arbitron ratings service provides ratings, the definition of “radio market” is based on the radio market to which BIA Kelsey reports assign the affected radio stations. For stations that are not in an Arbitron market, the market definition is based on technical service areas, pending further FCC rulemaking. Also under the rule, a radio station that provides more than 15% of another in-market station’s weekly programming or sells more than 15% of another in-market station’s weekly advertising will be deemed to have an attributable interest in the brokered station.

Radio-Television Cross-Ownership Rule

The radio-television cross-ownership rule generally allows common ownership of one or two television stations and up to six radio stations, or, in certain circumstances, one television station and seven radio stations, in any market where at least 20 independent voices would remain after the combination; two television stations and up to four radio stations in a market where at least 10 independent voices would remain after the combination; and one television and one radio station notwithstanding the number of independent voices in the market. A “voice” generally includes independently owned, same-market commercial and noncommercial broadcast television and radio stations, newspapers of certain minimum circulation, and one cable system per market.

Local Television Ownership Rule

Under the local television ownership rule, one party may own, operate, or control up to two television stations in a market, so long as the market would have at least eight independently owned full power television stations after the combination and at least one of the stations is not one of the top-four-rated stations (based on audience share) in the television market. The rule also permits the ownership, operation or control of two television stations in a market as long as the stations’ Noise Limited Service contours do not overlap. The FCC may waive this rule to permit ownership, operation or control of two television stations in a market that will not otherwise be permissible if one of the stations is in involuntary bankruptcy, is a “failed” station, or is “failing” (i.e., stations with negative cash flow and less than a four share all day audience rating).

Under the rule, the licensee of a television station that provides more than 15% of another in-market station’s weekly programming will be deemed to have an attributable interest in the other station. Based on an Order adopted by the FCC in March 2014, a television station that is a party to a joint sales agreement (JSA) pursuant to which it sells more than 15% of the advertising time of another television station in the same market will be deemed to have an attributable interest in the station for which it sells advertising time. This ruling became effective on June 19, 2014. Parties to JSA agreements in effect as of June 19, 2014 that do not comply with the FCC’s Local Television Ownership Rule were given two years to bring the JSA into compliance, seek a waiver or eliminate the JSA. The STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014, which was enacted on December 4, 2014, extended this deadline for six months, through December 19, 2016. An appeal of the FCC’s ruling regarding JSAs is pending before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.

Dual Network Rule

The dual network rule prohibits any of the four major networks — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — from merging with each other.

Television National Audience Reach Limitation

A person or entity is prohibited from having an attributable interest in television stations whose aggregate audience reach exceeds 39% of the television households in the United States. The FCC is precluded by statute from modifying this rule in connection with its mandated quadrennial review of the ownership rules. In calculating the number of households a station reaches, the FCC attributes a UHF station with only 50% of the television households in the market. In 2013, the FCC released a rulemaking proceeding proposing to eliminate the UHF discount which remains pending.

Attribution of Ownership

An “attributable” interest for purposes of the FCC’s broadcast ownership rules generally includes:

  • equity and debt interests which combined exceed 33% of a licensee’s total assets, if the interest holder supplies more that 15% of the licensee’s total weekly programming, or has an attributable same-market media interest, whether television, radio, cable or newspaper;
  • a 5% or greater direct or indirect voting stock interest, including certain interests held in trust, unless the holder is a qualified passive investor in which case the threshold is a 20% or greater voting stock interest;
  • any equity interest in a limited liability company or a partnership, including a limited partnership, unless properly “insulated” from management activities; and
  • any position as an officer or director of a licensee or of its direct or indirect parent.

Quadrennial Review of Ownership Rules

In April 2014, the FCC issued a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to initiate its 2014 quadrennial review of the multiple ownership rules. The FCC determined that the record from the 2010 quadrennial review — which proposed changes to the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule and the elimination of the radio-television cross-ownership rule — would be incorporated as part of the 2014 review.

Alien Ownership

The Communications Act restricts the ability of foreign entities or individuals to own or hold interests in U.S. broadcast licenses. Foreign governments, representatives of foreign governments, non-U.S. citizens, representatives of non-U.S. citizens, and corporations or partnerships organized under the laws of a foreign country (collectively, “aliens”) are prohibited from holding broadcast licenses. Aliens may directly or indirectly own or vote, in the aggregate, up to 20% of the capital stock of a licensee. In addition, a broadcast license may not be granted to or held by any corporation that is controlled, directly or indirectly, by any other corporation more than 25% of whose capital stock is owned or voted by aliens if the FCC finds that the public interest will be served by the refusal or revocation of such license.

The FCC has interpreted this provision to require an affirmative finding that foreign ownership in excess of 25% would serve the public interest and, in the past, the FCC has made such an affirmative finding in the broadcast context only in highly limited circumstances. In 2013, however, the FCC issued a declaratory ruling that notwithstanding its past practices it will consider on a case-by-case basis requests for approval of acquisitions by aliens of in excess of 25% of the stock of the parent of a broadcast licensee. In acting upon such a request, the FCC will coordinate with Executive Branch agencies on national security, law enforcement, foreign policy, and trade policy issues.

Repurposing of Broadcast Spectrum for Other Uses

In February 2012, Congress passed and the President signed legislation that, among other things, grants the FCC authority to conduct incentive auctions to recapture certain spectrum currently used by television broadcasters and repurpose it for other uses. In May 2014, the FCC released an order establishing general rules for the auctions. Several petitions for reconsideration of these rules were filed and remain pending. The FCC has also released several rulemaking proposals regarding specific rules and procedures that will be followed during the incentive auction process, and the incentive auction rulemaking process remains ongoing. Certain aspects of the FCC’s proposed incentive auction process have been challenged by the National Association of Broadcasters and one broadcast company in a lawsuit that is pending in the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The parties have requested that the court’s consideration of the appeal be handled on an expected basis.

The proposed incentive auction process has three components:

  • The FCC would conduct a reverse auction by which each television broadcaster may choose to retain its rights to a 6 MHz channel of spectrum or volunteer, in return for payment, to relinquish all of the station’s spectrum by surrendering its license; relinquish the right to some of its spectrum and thereafter share spectrum with another station; or modify its UHF channel license to a VHF channel license.
  • In order to accommodate the spectrum reallocated to new users, the FCC will “repack” the remaining television broadcast spectrum, which may require certain television stations that did not participate in the reverse auction to modify their transmission facilities, including requiring such stations to operate on different channels. The FCC has solicited comments on various aspects of the repacking and reimbursement process. The FCC is authorized to reimburse stations for reasonable relocation costs up to a total across all stations of $1.75 billion. In addition, Congress directed the FCC, when repacking television broadcast spectrum, to make reasonable efforts to preserve a station’s coverage area and population served. Also, the FCC is prohibited from requiring a station to move involuntarily from the UHF band to the VHF band or from the high VHF band to the low VHF band. The statute does not protect low power stations in the repacking process.
  • The FCC would conduct a forward auction of the relinquished spectrum to new users. The FCC must complete the reverse auction and the forward auction by September 30, 2022, and has announced that as of now it intends to conduct the auction in early 2016.

The outcome of the incentive auction and repacking of broadcast television spectrum, or the impact of such items on our business, cannot be predicted.

Obscenity, Indecency and Profanity

The FCC’s rules prohibit the broadcast of obscene material at any time and indecent or profane material between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. In recent years, the FCC has intensified its enforcement activities with respect to programming it considers indecent and has issued numerous fines to licensees found to have violated the indecency rules.

In July 2007, the FCC implemented increased forfeiture amounts for indecency violations that were enacted by Congress. The maximum permitted fine for an indecency violation is $325,000 per incident and $3,000,000 for any continuing violation arising from a single act or failure to act.

Because the FCC may investigate indecency complaints on an ex parte basis, a licensee may not have knowledge of an indecency complaint unless and until the complaint results in the issuance of a formal FCC letter of inquiry or notice of apparent liability for forfeiture. From time to time, our television and radio stations receive letters of inquiry and notices of proposed forfeitures from the FCC alleging that they have broadcast indecent material. We do not believe that broadcasts identified in any currently pending complaints of which we are aware violate the indecency standards. In July 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a decision finding that the FCC’s indecency standard was too vague for broadcasters to interpret and therefore inconsistent with the First Amendment.

In June 2012, the Supreme Court issued a decision which held that the FCC could not fine ABC and FOX for the specific broadcasts at issue in the case because the FCC had not provided them with sufficient notice of its intent to issue fines for the use of fleeting expletives. However, the Court did not make any substantive ruling regarding the FCC’s indecency standards. In April 2013, the FCC requested comments on its indecency policy, including whether it should ban the use of fleeting expletives or whether it should only impose fines for broadcasts that involve repeated and deliberate use of expletives. The FCC has not issued any decisions regarding indecency enforcement since the Supreme Court’s decision was issued although it has advised that it will continue to pursue enforcement actions in egregious cases while it conducts its review of its indecency policies generally.

Sponsorship Identification

Both the Communications Act and the FCC’s rules generally require that, when payment or other consideration has been received or promised to a broadcast licensee for the airing of program material, the station must disclose that fact and identify who paid or promised to provide the consideration at the time of broadcast. The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau investigates complaints alleging violations of the sponsorship identification requirements.

Digital Television

As of June 12, 2009, all full-power broadcast television stations were required to cease broadcasting analog programming and convert to all digital broadcasts. Digital broadcasting permits stations to offer digital channels for a wide variety of services such as high definition video programming, multiple channels of standard definition video programming, audio, data, and other types of communications. Each station is required to provide at least one free over-the-air video program signal.

To the extent a station has “excess” digital capacity (i.e., digital capacity not used to transmit free, over-the-air video programming), it may elect to use that capacity in any manner consistent with FCC technical requirements, including for additional free program streams, data transmission, digital or subscription video services, or paging and information services. If a station uses its digital capacity to provide any services on a subscription or otherwise “feeable” basis, it must pay the FCC an annual fee equal to 5% of the gross revenues realized from such services.

Relationship with MVPDs

A number of provisions of the Communications Act and FCC rules govern aspects of the relationship between broadcast television stations and MVPDs such as cable, satellite and telecommunications companies. The rules generally provide certain protections for broadcast stations, for which MVPDs are an important means of distribution and a provider of competing program channels.

To ensure that every local television station can be received in its local market without requiring a cable subscriber to switch between cable and off-air signals, the FCC allows every full-power television broadcast station to require that all local cable systems transmit that station’s primary digital channel to their subscribers within the station’s market (the so-called “must-carry” rule). Alternatively, a station may elect to forego its must-carry rights and seek a negotiated agreement to establish the terms of its carriage by a local cable system—referred to as “retransmission consent.” A station electing retransmission consent assumes the risk that it will not be able to strike a deal with the MVPD and will not be carried. A station has the opportunity to elect must-carry or retransmission consent every three years. Elections were made in September 2014 for the 2015-2017 three year period. A station that fails to notify a cable system of its election is presumed to have elected must-carry.

Cable systems are not required to carry any programming streams other than a station’s primary video programming channel. Consequently, the multicast programming streams provided by several of our television stations are not entitled to mandatory carriage pursuant to the digital must-carry rules. However, because the FCC’s action does not affect digital retransmission consent agreements, we are free to negotiate with cable operators for the carriage of additional programming streams under mutually agreed terms and conditions. A similar must-carry and retransmission consent regime governs carriage of local broadcast channels by direct-to-home satellite television operators. A satellite provider is not required to transmit the signal of any television station to its subscribers in that station’s market. However, if a satellite provider chooses to provide one local station to its subscribers in a market, the provider also must transmit locally every other station in that market that elects must-carry status. As with cable, stations may opt to pursue retransmission consent agreements. A local television station that fails to make any election to a satellite provider is deemed to have elected retransmission consent and is not guaranteed carriage. Satellite must-carry election periods occur every three years, consistent with cable must-carry periods.

In February 2011, the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) reviewing the retransmission consent rules. The NPRM requests comment on proposals to strengthen the good faith negotiation requirements and to require advance notice of the potential that a television station could be dropped from an MVPD’s programming lineup. In a separate proceeding, the FCC has requested comment on its proposal to expand the definition of MVPD to include entities that make available multiple channels of video programming to subscribers through Internet connections. Both proceedings are pending, and we cannot predict what impact, if any, they will have on our negotiations with video programming distributors. In December 2014, the STELA Reauthorization Act was enacted. The main purpose of the legislation was to extend the authority of satellite providers to transmit television signals from distant markets to viewers in rural markets who are unable to receive a local signal. The legislation also renewed the FCC’s authority to enforce its rules governing good faith negotiation of agreements between broadcast stations and MVPDs.

Children’s Television Programming

Federal legislation and FCC rules limit the amount and content of commercial matter that may be shown on television stations during programming designed for children 12 years and younger, and require stations to broadcast three hours per week of educational and informational programming (“E/I programming”) designed for children 16 years of age and younger. FCC rules also require television stations to broadcast E/I programming on each additional digital multicast program stream transmitted, with the requirement increasing in proportion to the additional hours of free programming offered on multicast channels. These rules also limit the display during children’s programming of Internet addresses of websites that contain or link to commercial material or that use program characters to sell products.

The FCC permits existing AM and FM radio broadcast stations to broadcast digitally in order both to improve sound quality and to provide spectrum for multicast channels and/or enhanced data services to complement the existing programming service. The FCC has authorized AM and FM radio stations to broadcast digital signals using excess spectrum within the same allotted bandwidth used for analog transmissions. In January 2010, the FCC adopted procedures that allow FM radio stations to significantly increase their digital power levels above those originally permitted in order to improve the digital service these stations provide.

Closed Captioning

FCC rules require the majority of programming broadcast by television stations to contain closed captions. The FCC forwards to television stations viewer complaints it receives with respect to closed captioning problems, and several of our stations have received complaints that were filed with the FCC. We have responded to these complaints, and they are currently pending. The FCC also adopted rules that require television programming broadcast or transmitted with captioning include captioning of programming subsequently made available online, for example, by streaming content on broadcasters’ websites. This requirement also applies to brief segments or clips of video programs that were broadcast with captioning that are carried on the Internet.

FCC rules also require, in part, that affiliates of the top-four national broadcast networks in the top 25 markets provide a minimum of 50 hours of video-described primetime and/or children’s programming each calendar quarter. The requirement to provide video descriptions will ultimately be expanded in 2015 to network affiliates in the top 60 markets.

In February, 2014, the FCC adopted new rules intended to improve the quality of closed captioning. Certain of the new requirements became effective June 30, 2014 and other requirements become effective March 16, 2015.


The FCC rules require broadcast stations to maintain various records regarding operations, including equipment performance records and a log of a station’s operating parameters. Broadcast stations must also maintain a public inspection file. Portions of the public inspection files maintained by television stations are hosted on an FCC-maintained website. In December 2014, the FCC issued a rulemaking proposing to extend the obligations to post portions of the public file online to radio stations as well. The proposal is pending.

Communications Regulation: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Communications Regulation. This part provides references, in relation to Communications Regulation, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Communications Regulation by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Communications Regulation and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Communications Regulation or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Communications Regulation and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Communications Regulation. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Communications Regulation should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Communications Regulation when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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