Three years in the making, a notice of proposed rulemaking would give the thumbs up to online contest rules.

Big News! The Commission has taken the unusual step of proposing a rule revision requested by broadcasters and of potential benefit to broadcasters, both TV and radio! The on-air contest rule – Section 73.1216 – is up for a long-overdue overhaul. And while there may be plenty to criticize in the FCC’s less-than-prompt attention here, let’s not focus on that just now. Instead, let’s take a look at how the Commission figures to make broadcasters’ lives a little better.

As we have reported previously, the contest rule requires (among other things) periodic on-air disclosure of all material elements of the contest. You can find some examples of the rule in action here, here and here. For many contests, that imposes a considerable burden on both stations (who must be sure to intone the rules on the air, often at auctioneer speed – or scroll them in infinitesimal print – regardless of how much that can interrupt program flow) and audience members (who have to suffer through the interruptions).

Nearly three years ago, Entercom filed a petition for rulemaking advancing an unquestionably reasonable proposal: instead of the over-the-air requirement, why not let broadcasters post contest rules on their websites (or, if a broadcaster doesn’t happen to have a website, on a state broadcast association site) for all the world to read whenever all the world happens to want to read them? As Entercom put it, this would be consistent with “how the majority of Americans access and consume information in the 21st century.”

The Commission is now on board with the idea.

In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), it has proposed expanding the rule to permit broadcasters to post on-air contest rules on “the station’s Internet website, the licensee’s website, or if neither the individual station nor the licensee has its own website, any Internet website that is publicly accessible”. (In the alternative, broadcasters would still be able to satisfy the disclosure requirement through “a reasonable number of periodic” on-air announcements.)

Material contest terms disclosed online would have to conform in all substantive respects to those mentioned over the air – probably not a big deal. Ditto for the proposal concerning any changes to the material terms during the course of the contest: such changes would have to be fully disclosed on air, or the fact that such changes had been would have to be announced on air (with interested audience members being directed to the written disclosures online).

Stations choosing to disclose contest rules online would have to announce on-air that the rules are accessible online, which might not be a problem but for one gotcha: the “complete, direct website address where the terms are posted” would have to be announced “each time the station mentions or advertises the contest.” (The emphasis there is ours, not the FCC’s.) For stations which prefer to promote the bejeebers out of their contests, that requirement could get real old real fast for stations and audience alike. Still, such details can be addressed in comments in response to the NPRM and, ideally, the Commission might be convinced that a “full-website-every-time” notice requirement is probably overkill.

The NPRM also seeks comment on a variety of practical questions, such as:

  • What steps can be taken to ensure that contest terms are easy for consumers to locate on a website?
  • How long should a licensee be required to maintain contest information online?
  • Should licensees be required to distinguish in some way contest terms deemed “material” from other contest information to ensure that “material” terms aren’t buried in lengthy fine print? 
  • Does the term “material” need to be refined?

To the extent that the Commission really hasn’t decided any of these questions – and we should be willing to take them at their word here – input from affected broadcasters could prove very beneficial in the development of standards that comport with the reality of the industry. Deadlines for comments haven’t been set yet. Check back here for updates on that front.

Bottom line: props to Entercom for getting the ball rolling. And props, too, to the Commission for keeping the ball rolling on a proposal likely to do broadcasters some good.

But we’ve got to wonder exactly why it took the Commission so long. Entercom’s proposal was filed nearly three years ago. Not only was it unopposed, it attracted considerable support. In adopting the NPRM, all five Commissioners patted themselves on the back for embracing Entercom’s proposal. Given this universal, unanimous love-fest in support of the proposals, what exactly was the hang-up for three years?