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FCC Rebuffs Broadcast Efforts to Lower Regulatory Fees

FCC
FCC headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Broadcasters did not get the breaks they were hoping for from the Federal Communications Commission when it comes to the fees they pay for the privilege of being regulated.

The FCC released an order Friday (September 2) setting the fee schedule for 2022 and it did not include a price break for TV or radio. The FCC supports itself on money collected from license holders including broadcasters, cable, satellite operators and telcos. 

Also: State Broadcasters Say FCC Fee Regime Is Illegal

In addition to not getting the commission to start making Big Tech companies pay for FCC operations, given how much they benefit from the use of unlicensed spectrum the agency also oversees, broadcasters did not get a raft of other asks related to the fees. 

Broadcasters had complained that their fees were going up by too much — 13% from 2021 to 2022 — without explanation from the FCC. Station owners argued the fees should instead be reduced across the board, including because of “broadcasters’ longstanding special place in the fabric of American society.”

For example, TV and radio stations have a public-interest standard to adhere to that does not apply to their cable and satellite  — or streaming —- competitors, the last of which are not regulated by the FCC at all. Broadcasters also pointed out that they don't charge for their service and argued they have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic since they lack a base of paid subscribers to cushion the blow from lost ad revenue.

The FCC said it felt broadcasters’ pain but it was statutorily required to cover its costs so, given that zero-sum game, it could not cut fees across the board for any category based on ability to pay or financial circumstances. Thus, it had to deny the request by the National Association of Broadcasters and others.

Other broadcaster asks to which the FCC answered “no:”

1) Broadcasters wanted the FCC to charge VHF TV stations less since they are less valuable than UHFs after the digital transition due to signal limitations. The FCC said “there is nothing inherent in VHF transmission that creates signal deficiencies,” and would not lower the fees, though it pointed out VHFs can apply for waivers to operate at higher power levels.

2) Broadcasters wanted the FCC to stop basing fees on population, preferring to base it on the Nielsen designated market area (DMA). The FCC said no, explaining: “We recognize that the population-based methodology increases fees for some licensees and reduces fees for others, but in the end the population-based metric better conforms with the actual service authorized here — broadcasting television to the American people.”

3) Broadcasters asked that the FCC continue to exempt them from costs associated with the FCC's congressional mandate in the Broadband DATA Act for a one-time expenditure to improve broadband mapping, which the FCC did in 2021, lowering broadcast fees by almost 9%. The FCC said that was a one-time-only deal, and pointed out that was why broadcasters' fees increased by almost 13% in 2022, when it would longer be getting that price break.

4) Broadcasters asked that the FCC increase from $1,000 to $1,200 the de minimis threshold for fee collection. Currently, the FCC has calculated that it will not collect from any broadcaster whose fee is $1,000 or less because it costs more that $1,000 in administrative fees to collect it. Broadcasters wanted that raised a smidge to $1,200, suggesting the FCC's costs had gone up. The FCC said it had checked, and they hadn't, even including some additional costs the agency had suggested had done so (though the FCC did not concede those had) and said the collection cost was still not above $1,000. Again, it said no.

5) The NAB had asked the FCC to reclassify some employees it said were working on broadband subsidies, arguing broadcasters should not have to bear any of their costs. The FCC declined, but in a small victory said how it calculates the fees associated with them needed to be adjusted. ■

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.