TV Stations in License Limbo

Aug 8, 2005  •  Post A Comment

An unprecedented backlog of TV station license renewal applications has created an administrative nightmare for the Federal Communications Commission.

It has left numerous broadcasters in a legal limbo that makes it difficult for some to get new bank financing tied to the value of the stations up for renewal or to sell the stations.

As of late last week 524 renewal applications were tied up at the agency-almost half of the more than 1,300 commercial TV station licenses in existence in the United States.

FCC officials were declining comment, but industry sources said the vast majority of the applications have been sucked into indecency investigations affecting affiliates of the Big 4 TV networks. Sources said the FCC is trying to address all outstanding complaints before it completes license renewals. In each case, the agency must decide whether to punish broadcasters for airing off-color programming and must also determine the nature of the punishment.

“It’s an extension of the madness that’s going on with indecency,” said one attorney close to the issue.

A number of broadcasters contacted by TelevisionWeek confirmed that their renewals are taking much longer than expected, but few were willing to comment on the record.

Sources in Washington confirmed that while the licenses are being processed, broadcasters can’t sell their stations. Large broadcast groups can still get bank financing but it is a problem for some smaller groups and owners of single stations that are up for renewal.

An estimated 361 of the applications have been in the process longer than four months, which usually means the licenses have expired. Broadcasters get an eight-year license and are required to apply for a license renewal four months in advance.

“It generates a level of uncertainty that’s hard on [station] management and employees,” a communications industry attorney said.

“It’s just disgraceful,” said one TV station executive of the fact that some license renewal applications have been held up for more than a year. It’s been a particular problem for NBC and WB affiliates.

“I don’t have any specific knowledge about why we’re being held up,” said Barry Ahrendt, director of marketing and programming for NBC affiliate WIS-TV in Columbia, S.C. “Our understanding is the enforcement bureau has a backlog of indecency-related complaints. It’s holding up all the affiliate licenses in our region.”

The holds could prove to be a major headache for groups with plans to sell TV stations, including Sinclair Broadcast Group and Emmis Communications.

The FCC has been inundated with thousands of indecency complaints since Janet Jackson bared her breast during the Super Bowl halftime show last year. That incident galvanized individuals and groups, which have since filed numerous complaints.

Using the Internet, watchdog groups such as the Parents Television Council regularly generate complaints that have asked the FCC to punish network affiliates for airing network programs the groups find objectionable.

The reason the FCC is not granting renewals for stations with outstanding FCC complaints is because once the agency grants a renewal, it is required to resolve the complaint within one year, an industry attorney said.

PTC and other groups that supported FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s campaign for the agency’s top office earlier this year have been pressuring him to crack down on licensees.

“We have certainly made a very public case that until outstanding indecency complaints are adjudicated, broadcasters should not have their licenses renewed,” said Tim Winter, PTC’s executive director, in an interview last week.

Among the complaints still unresolved, according to the PTC, are the use of the F-word on CBS’s “Big Brother” in 2003 and Nicole Richie’s use of the words “f**king” and “cows**t” during Fox’s coverage of the Billboard Music Awards that same year. Still another complaint cited the use of the word “bulls**t” on an episode of ABC’s drama series “NYPD Blue,” also in 2003.

Industry attorneys said what’s been particularly maddening about the situation is that FCC officials have refused to identify which complaints are causing the holdup. “Nobody likes to be in that state of limbo,” an attorney said.

Broadcasters’ filing deadlines are staggered regionally. During the current license renewal cycle, the first applications were filed in June 2004. The last will be due in April 2007.