FCC Proposes Multimillion-Dollar Fines Against Sinclair/Nexstar/Cunningham Stations

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The FCC has proposed fining Cunningham, Sinclair and Nexstar TV stations over $3 million collectively for alleged violations of the FCC's children's TV programming rules.

The FCC said that the stations "apparently willfully and repeatedly violated rules limiting commercial matter in children's programming."

Under orders from Congress to limit ads in children's TV, the FCC set limits of 10.5 minutes of commercials per hour of children's programming on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays. And those numbers can add up fast if a station airs ad ad related to the children's programming, say an animated character from the show in a cereal commercial (host selling), since the FCC then considers the entire program one long commercial.

Also: FCC Gives Broadcasters More Kidvid Flexibility

That appears to be what happened with the Cunningham/Sinclair/Nexstar stations, which the FCC said aired a commercial for a Hot Wheels toy garage in the Team Hot Wheels program. Some of the stations blamed Sinclair for providing the programming and the garage commercials. Sinclair in November 2020 volunteered to the FCC that 85 of its stations had indeed aired the show and the garage commercials and thus had aired program-length commercials in violation of FCC rules.

As to Cunningham's point about the commercials being imbedded in programming it got from Sinclair, the FCC said that "regardless of the technical or logistical constraints of airing programming, every licensee bears nondelegable responsibility for compliance with its regulatory obligations."

But the FCC did propose a higher fine for Sinclair and Nexstar stations than the others, pointing to Nexstar's ability to pay and to Sinclair's "lengthy a history of prior offenses of the children’s television commercial limitations."

The offending stations said the mistake was inadvertent, but the FCC said that was not a defense. "Although numerous broadcasters indicate in their renewal applications and commercial limit certification filings that these overages were inadvertent, this does not mitigate or excuse the violations," it said. "The Commission has repeatedly rejected inadvertence as a basis for excusing violations of the children’s television commercial limits."

"It is not always easy to be a mom right now.  I know, because I am one," said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. "The screens around us are multiplying, and it is hard to keep tabs on what our kids are consuming. But in the Children’s Television Act, Congress sought to ensure that broadcasting would remain a special place for kids’ content. The law put clear limits on advertising on children’s programming. Those limits were ignored here, where broadcasters mixed toy commercials with content and violated our rules. This Notice of Apparent Liability is the result. I thank my colleagues for supporting this enforcement action because every parent wants to know their kids are safe and with so many ways to watch, honoring the principles in the Children’s Television Act is essential." ■

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.