THE Federal Communications Commission has put broadcasters on notice: Any station overcharging federal candidates for political commercials during this election year will be treated to stiff fines and possible loss of license.
Following a 1990 audit of potential overcharges, the FCC found that a majority of the stations were overcharging for political ads.
In December it fined two stations $25,000 each: KRON in San Francisco, which allegedly overcharged for 47 campaign spots; and KDFW in Dallas-Fort Worth, which allegedly overcharged for 98 political spots.
Thirty stations in all were audited. Fifteen were cleared, and three were cited on a lesser charge of failure to maintain complete political-broadcasting files.
KTXA and KRID in Dallas-Fort Worth and WSTR in Cincinnati got much smaller fines and letters of caution. FCC sends a strong message
"When you send a message like that, it's going to have an impact," says Milton Gross, chief of the political branch of the FCC. "Before we entertain a complaint, we have to have reason for believing they [political candidates buying TV spots] were overcharged. Sometimes advertising agencies buy time for candidates and commercial ads, sometimes former employees [of stations] let us know. We hope all these rulings will help broadcasters comply with the statutes."
New FCC rules on political broadcasting, adopted in December, state that political candidates' ads fall under the the "lowest-unit-charge" requirement, as well as the "equal opportunity"and "reasonable access" regulations.
FCC officials say they believe the new rules will stop excessive charges.
"I think there's no question about overcharges being less likely," says Diane Hofbauer, special assistant to the FCC general counsel. "The level of awareness on the part of broadcasters has risen sharply, not only on fines but all the various actions we've taken. We'd been flooded with questions by broadcasters. They are trying to understand the rules and what they should be doing.... The fines put them on notice that the commission does intend to enforce these rules."
Whether a station could lose its license remains to be seen. Ms. Hofbauer says, "It's feasible, but it would have to be a very egregious case. Usually a station doesn't lose its license for a single violation. Other things are involved, like a cover-up practise or other practices." FCC's jurisdiction remains to be clarified
This issue has been hanging fire for a long time for the stations and for candidates who alleged they had been overcharged under the lowest-unit-charge statute.
As broadcasters asked the FCC to intervene, evidence of the number of candidates who had previously filed lawsuits against stations or threatened them with such action grew.
The validity of the FCC's recent decision that it has jurisdiction over overcharges, rebates, and other issues is ultimately up to the federal courts. If they uphold the FCC's jurisdiction, candidates threatening lawsuits will have no alternative but to file complaints instead with the FCC.
Those with memories of how long it takes to get a decision from the FCC point to the infamous RKO license-renewal challenge, which took 20 years to resolve. It was almost a TV version of Dickens's novel "In Chancery" about an endless lawsuit.
"RKO was incredibly complicated, the only case that ever took 20 years," says Ms. Hofbauer. "The courts are backed up for years, too. The FCC believes it is the proper place to bring complaints enforced by the statute."