In a decision released this week, the FCC fined a Chicago radio station $44,000 for omitting sponsorship identification announcements on 11 on-air spots promoting the positions of the sponsoring organization on certain issues facing the local community. Finding that the purpose of the sponsorship identification rules (Section 317 of the Communications Act and Section 73.1212 of the FCC rules) is to allow the station’s listeners to know who is trying to convince them of whatever is being broadcast, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau decided that each of the violations would be assessed the base fine of $4000 – meaning that there was a total fine of $44,000.
We wrote about the original Notice of Violation in this case two years ago, here. In a two month period, the station had run a series of paid announcements on behalf of an organization called Workers Independent News (“WIN”), addressing social and political issues. The announcements consisted of 45 90-second spots, 27 15-second promotional announcements, two two-hour programs, and one one-hour program. All but 11 of these announcements had proper sponsorship identifications. Even those 11 announcements identified the announcer as being with WIN, but they did not specifically say that the 11 spots had been “paid for” or “sponsored by” by the organization. That alone was enough to prompt the fine. But $44,000?
The amount of the fine was determined by taking the $4000 base fine for a sponsorship identification announcement (as set out in the FCC’s standard fines for broadcast violations as set out in their Forfeiture Policy Statement - a “forfeiture” being what most of us call a “fine”) and multiplied it by the number of times the spots that ran. The FCC considered an argument made by the licensee that past precedent had treated as a single violation warranting only the base fine of $4000 similar situations where spots failing to identify a sponsor ran multiple times. But the Enforcement Bureau, citing TV decisions on video news releases, said that the policy in more recent cases,, is to count each announcement or program as a separate violation, and levy the base fine for each time the un-labeled material ran on the air. The FCC made clear that they are making clear that they will apply this policy to any new cases going forward.
The FCC also rejected any reduction in the proposed fine based on the fact that this was an inadvertent employee error. The licensee noted that the other announcements run for WIN were properly tagged, and that included announcements run after the ones in question, that had corrected the inadvertent omission in the 11 announcements at issue in this case. But the FCC faulted the licensee for not turning itself in to the FCC, and found that the corrective actions did not mitigate the fact that the violations occurred, and thus gave no reason to reduce the amount of the fine.
It is clear that the FCC is cracking down on all of its violations for programming matters. We have written about the strict application of the rules to contest violations (see, e.g. this article here summarizing a case where a station was fined for not broadcasting the material rules of the contest the first time that the contest was announced). We also wrote about a prior case of the settlement of a claimed violation of the sponsorship identification rules which led to a $15,000 “voluntary contribution” to the government (where the fact that an ad was sponsored was announced, but the name of the sponsor itself was not, as it contained the word “cigarette”, and the licensee did not want to announce the sponsor’s name only to get in trouble for promoting smoking products). These cases make it clear that, if a programming rule is violated, you can expect little mercy from the FCC. So be very careful to observe all the FCC’s programming rules.