FCC Encourages TV Stations to Air Religious Services as Public Service

The FCC is encouraging TV stations to keep the faith, literally, during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The commission is allowing those stations to preempt educational and informational children's programming for religious programming without having to reschedule it, but only over the next three weeks.  FCC chair Ajit Pai signaled such preemption for religious services would also be a public service.

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The FCC's Media Bureau has issued a temporary, limited waiver so that during the Passover and Easter seasons, with most of the faithful having to attend church remotely over the internet or TV, broadcasters can air live or taped same-day religious services instead of the E/I children's programming they are required to carry--at least three hours a week. 

"This flexibility will allow broadcasters to encourage social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic by airing important community programming that can substitute for live in-person attendance at events, such as Easter religious services or Passover seders," said the FCC. 

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“Local broadcasters can make a unique contribution to our country in this difficult time,” said Pai. “On one hand, social distancing is a critical factor in enabling the mitigation of the spread of the coronavirus. On the other, we are in the midst of important holy days for so many Americans. By making it easier for local TV stations to broadcast religious services and rituals to the faithful in their homes, we can enable both social distancing and observance. I thank local broadcasters for working with us on this matter and wish everyone a safe and blessed holiday season.” 

The bureau said stations are required to inform viewers that the children's programming has been preempted, and encouraged them to reschedule it, but did not require it. 

The waiver extends to April 30.

Commissioner Michael O'Rielly applauded the waiver.

“Children’s programming is as important as ever during this period of mass isolation, but this limited waiver could help stations serve their communities in a way that may truly save lives," he said in a statement. "The work of local broadcasters to bring matters such as this to our attention, including Gray Television in this instance, has been incredibly valuable as the Commission continues to do our part to combat COVID-19.”

According to a Gray Television spokesperson, the broadcaster had asked for limited relief of the rules for the church services, even if they are not scheduled in advance (and thus not “live and breaking”) and even if filmed by a choir director or a deacon, so not “produced by the station,” and aired during this crisis only (and as a result not “regularly scheduled”). 

“In these unprecedented times, NAB supports the unique programming flexibility the FCC is providing broadcasters to best serve our tens of millions of local listeners and viewers," said National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton.

"NRB heartily applauds the FCC’s decision to temporarily suspend some of its television programming rules in order to facilitate religious broadcasts during Easter and Passover, particularly during this season of contagion," said National Religious Broadcasters association general counsel Craig Parshall. "Equally important is the Commission’s recognition of the vital public interest served by faith-based broadcasting."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.