The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has announced a waiver of broadcast sponsorship identification requirements concerning air time donated by commercial advertisers for public service announcements (“PSAs”) provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) and other government agencies addressing the COVID-19 emergency.

Sections 317(a) of the Communications Act and 73.1212(a) of FCC’s Rules require disclosure on the air of the identity of anyone who pays for broadcast content. Typically, the naming of a sponsor’s product or service is sufficient to identify who paid for a traditional commercial spot.  During the COVID-19 emergency, however, some businesses that signed contracts for advertising do not want to run their spots, because their operations have been suspended or modified during the emergency, or because the content of the spots is inappropriate under current circumstances. Rather than cancelling their contracts, some advertisers have offered to donate their paid time for the broadcaster to use for CDC/government PSAs.

Normally, when a commercial entity pays for a PSA, including a PSA for an unrelated entity, the identity of the paying party must be disclosed when the PSA is aired.  For example, if a local car dealership pays for time used by the county public health commission, the county public health commission PSA would need to identify that the time was paid for by the car dealership. In reaction to the current crisis, the FCC has waived the requirement to identify the commercial payer; instead, the PSA may be identified as provided by the CDC or other agency.  In our example, the car dealership now does not need to be named. The FCC reasons that some commercial entities do not want to be identified as paying for these PSAs, and tying a government agency’s announcement to a commercial sponsor might be confusing to the public and/or erode the credibility of the PSA.

The waiver is optional.  If an entity that pays for a PSA wishes to be identified on the air, and a broadcaster is willing to identify the payer, such identification is permissible.

The waiver applies only to true PSAs addressing the COVID-19 emergency.  If some promotion of the payer’s commercial product or activity is included in the spot, the commercial payer must be identified on the air.

The waiver expires on June 30, 2020.  The FCC will decide later whether or not to extend the waiver, depending on where the COVID-19 emergency stands at that time.