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Shh! Public TV Questions Auction Quiet Period

WASHINGTON—Just how quiet is the “quiet period” following the deadline to apply for the TV spectrum incentive auction? Inquiring public TV station minds want to know. Representatives from the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, the Association of Public Television Stations and PBS met with Federal Communications Commission officials to discuss “multiple questions concerning the prohibited communications rule, particularly as it could affect noncommercial broadcasters’ routine business and financial operations.”

The queries were laid out in an ex partefiling authored by Rosemary H. Harold of Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP in Washington.

“We understand that wrongful intent is not necessarily a factor in evaluating a possible rule violation,” Harold wrote. “To be clear, however, all of the questions [herein] are premised on good-faith efforts to comply with the prohibited communications rule while also attending to a station’s legitimate operational needs, particularly ongoing normal financial operations.” (Emphasis Harold’s.)

In its auction Bidding Procedures Public Notice released Aug. 11, the commission said it would impose a “prohibition on communicating information relating to bids or bidding strategies, such as non-public information that bidders may access in the auction system, to broadcast licensees eligible to participate in the reverse auction or to forward auction applicants, subject to specified exceptions.”

The two exceptions were described in the FCC auction rulemaking adopted last August. The first involves TV stations with a common “controlling interest, director, officer or governing board member” as of the application deadline, which has not yet been announced. The second applies to “all parties to a channel-sharing arrangement… only if the agreement has been executed prior to the reverse auction application-filing deadline, and has been disclosed on the application.”

Harold, on behalf of CBP, PBS and APTS, listed several questions regarding what is allowed during quiet period:

Does it prohibit a station from announcing that it withdrew from the auction?

Does it prohibit a station from publicly communicating its plan to continue broadcasting after the auction?

How will it impact public fundraising, including communicating with existing donors—without disclosing bids or bidding strategies? E.g., would long-term capital fundraising be “construed as the station’s intention to remain in broadcasting?” I.e., can the station mention that it plans to keep broadcasting after the auction?

With regard to sustaining members who donate to public TV stations on a regular monthly basis, “would continuing those efforts through the quiet period constitute signaling?”

Should stations with multi-year strategic plans on their websites take them down during the quiet period to avoid suggesting “non-participation in the auction?”

Further, the public TV groups wanted to know if stations could tell the public they expect “public broadcasting service will continue,” as long as stations aren’t specifically identified as the source of that service.

What can public stations say about their auction participation with regard to Freedom of Information Act requests and other public records?

There were a number of questions regarding the appropriations process, and whether or not public stations could communicate with members of Congress about ongoing funding.

There also was a question about whether or not stations that sign multi-year contracts will be considered as “signaling something about their auction participation.”

And finally, the groups asked if stations with newsrooms were prohibited from reporting on their own station’s participation during the quiet period.

Public stations are not alone in their quest for quiet period details. DTV Utah, a consortium of eight TV stations serving the Salt Lake City market, also asked the FCC how they can navigate the quiet period. (See “Eight TV Stations on One Stick Ponder Repack.”)

The commission, in its Aug. 11 Bidding Procedures PN, said more details about the quiet period and other auction logistics will be laid out in a forthcoming Application Procedures Public Notice. The Procedures PN said the FCC’s Wireless Bureau would release the Applications Procedures PN “at least 60 days before the deadline to file auction applications.”