Sinclair, Nexstar stations face fines for breaking advertising rule

A still frame from a KTXL news broadcast. (Graphic by The Desk)

A Sacramento television station is one of several broadcast outlets that could be fined tens of thousands of dollars for allegedly violating a federal law regarding advertisements aimed at children.

On Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a proposal to fine stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, Nexstar Media and several other local broadcast operators over a program that aired on those stations nearly three years ago.

The issue stems from several broadcasts of the children’s program “Team Hot Wheels,” which Sinclair aired on dozens of its own local television stations. The company also distributed the program to competing broadcast owners, including Nexstar Media.

Broadcasters are allowed to air commercials during children’s programming, but are limited in the amount of ads that may air during a programming block. The rules, which were passed by Congress in 1990, state that broadcasters can only run 10 to 12 minutes of ads per hour of children’s programming, depending on the day of the week. If an ad contains a product that is linked to a show airing on a station at any given moment, the FCC treats the entire program as one big commercial.

According to the FCC, several episodes of “Team Hot Wheels” that aired across Sinclair and Nexstar stations included a commercial for Hot Wheels toys. The ad meant the FCC could treat the entire “Team Hot Wheels” show as one big commercial for Hot Wheels. And it did.

The issue might not have caught the attention of the FCC if Sinclair had not told on itself two years ago. The company disclosed the apparent issue when it was seeking the FCC’s approval to renew licenses associated with several of its television stations.

The FCC launched an investigation and found dozens of Sinclair-owned stations had violated the children’s advertising rules when it aired the Hot Wheels show and commercial together. It also found stations owned by Nexstar and other broadcast groups had violated the children’s advertising rule when it received the show from Sinclair and broadcast it without editing out the commercial.

The federal agency has proposed a base fine of at least $8,000 against each station that violated the children’s advertising rule in question. It has proposed an increased fine of $32,000 against Sinclair’s 82 stations because it repeatedly violated the rule over a significant period of time. One Sinclair station, WABM-TV (Channel 68, My Network) in Birmingham, faces a $28,000 fine because it did not air as many episodes of “Team Hot Wheels” compared to other Sinclair stations.

The proposal means Sinclair could be on the hook for over $2.6 million in fines for violating the children’s advertising rule, the FCC said. But it’s not the only station that faces monetary penalties.

Nexstar could pay out $26,000 per station that aired “Team Hot Wheels” after the FCC found it liable for violating the children’s advertising rule as well. According to the FCC, the problematic episodes aired across six Nexstar television stations, including KTLA (Channel 5, CW) in Los Angeles, WGN-TV (Channel 9) in Chicago, KDVR (Channel 31, Fox) in Denver and KTXL (Channel 40, Fox) in Sacramento.

Dozens of other, smaller broadcast stations are facing fines of up to $20,000 each, the FCC affirmed. The agency said it proposed larger fines against Sinclair and Nexstar because they are bigger, publicly-traded companies with more money, and thus had the ability to pay more for their purported violations.

“While some non-Sinclair licensees point out that the commercials were embedded in the programming provided by Sinclair, we do not find any lessened responsibility,” a spokesperson for the FCC said on Wednesday.

The commercial in question is no longer airing on any of the stations.

Disclosure: The author of this story was employed by KTXL from 2008 to 2010. At the time of his employment, the station was owned by Tribune Broadcasting, not Nexstar Media Group.