With the obligation of television stations to file the quarterly Children’s Television Reports on FCC Form 398 by Monday (as the usual January 10 date is on a weekend) and the simultaneous requirement to place into their online public file documentation of compliance with the commercial limits in Children’s programming, it is worth reminding stations of the seriousness with which the FCC continues to view its children’s television rules. There have been a number of fines and enforcement actions against TV stations in recent weeks, highlighting the need for stations to be vigilant about compliance with all aspects of the children’s television rules. While the license renewal cycle, during which most of these issues come to light, is coming to an end in 2015 and stations that have already been renewed won’t face renewal scrutiny for at least another 5 years, issues that arise even this far out from the renewal window can haunt the station at the next renewal. Moreover, with the public inspection files of stations now online, the FCC or other interested parties can view station’s compliance with these obligations at anytime from anywhere, and can easily file FCC complaints. So TV stations cannot let down their guard simply because their license renewal has been granted.
In the past week, we saw one interesting case, where the FCC proposed to fine a station $3000 for failing to include the “E/I” symbol in the educational and informational programming directed to children on two of its multicast channels. The FCC rejected arguments by the licensee that the programming on those channels was in Korean, and thus the E/I symbol would not make sense to the Korean viewers of the programing. The Commission reasoned that, if the station wanted an exemption to the rules, where it could identify the programming as educational and informational in Korean text, the station should have asked for a waiver of the rules.
The Commission also did not absolve the station of liability for these violations (reported by the station itself in its renewal application filed in 2014) despite the fact that these issues took place in 2008 and were apparently resolved by early 2009. This is similar to other recent cases where the FCC has based fines for untimely Form 398 filings that occurred early in the license renewal term and were otherwise largely a problem of the distant past. The Commission seems to take a hard line on violations, regardless of when they occurred in the renewal term. The case also reminds TV broadcasters to observe the rules on multicast channels as well as on the main video channel to which most attention is usually paid.
In addition to fines for late-filed quarterly Children’s Television Reports (which we wrote about here, and the fines have continued for both Class A and full-power TV stations throughout the renewal term), the FCC has issued numerous admonitions for exceeding commercial limits in children’s programming (see for instance cases here and here released this week). Where there are isolated instances where a program character inadvertently appears for an instant in a commercial run during the program or where, as in this week’s cases, a link to a website containing commercial material appears for an instant once in a children’s program, the Commission appears to be willing to forego monetary penalties. But, if there are a series of such violations, don’t count on leniency, as we have seen fines where the violations were not so isolated.
We’ve also seen fines where a station forgot to provide information about Educational and Informational programming for children to local program guides for a short period of time during the renewal term, or forgot to periodically announce the existence and location of their Children’s Television Reports. From all of these cases, it is clear that the FCC continues to take children’s television obligations very seriously, and thus stations need to observe the filing deadlines, and otherwise keep their regulatory house in order.