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Nexstar faces challenge of 14 broadcast licenses at FCC

The former owner of a Rhode Island TV station, now owned by Nexstar, alleges the company made false statements on license renewal forms after failing to make timely disclosures of public inspection files.

The former owner of a Rhode Island TV station, now owned by Nexstar, alleges the company made false statements on license renewal forms after failing to make timely disclosures of public inspection files.

The studios of WPRI and WNAC-TV in Providence, Rhode Island. (Photo via Google Maps)
The studios of WPRI and WNAC-TV in Providence, Rhode Island. (Photo via Google Maps)

A former television company is challenging Nexstar Media Group’s application to renew broadcast licenses for more than a dozen stations over apparent false statements made by Nexstar to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The matter concerns documents that Nexstar and other broadcasters are required to provide to the FCC as part of each station’s public inspection file, which includes records about political content and advertising aired on licensed stations.

The public inspection file dates back to a 1930s-era rule in which the FCC gave broadcasters greater autonomy to operate their licensed stations as they see fit. One condition of holding a broadcast license is that stations must serve the public interest, and the public inspection file is supposed to contain documents that demonstrate whether broadcasters are holding up that end of the bargain.

The FCC gives broadcast stations and their owners a certain amount of time to upload public inspection files on a regular basis. Records related to political content and advertising are supposed to be furnished to the FCC once every 90 days.

But a company called WNAC LLC says Nexstar not only didn’t furnish the appropriate political records within the required time frame, but falsely claimed otherwise when it applied to renew the TV licenses of 12 stations between last year and early this year.

WNAC LLC comprises former industry stakeholders who operated WNAC-TV (Channel 64, Fox), a Providence-based broadcast station that was acquired by Mission Broadcasting in 2020. Mission Broadcasting stations are wholly operated by Nexstar through shared service agreements, a business arrangement that is at the center of two separate disputes at the FCC.

WNAC LLC’s complaint leans on several actions taken by the FCC last year that found Nexstar had violated agency rules a number of times over the past two years, resulting in proposed fines that ranged from $3,000 to over $180,000.

The fines were related to rules beyond the public inspection file requirement — in one case, seven Nexstar stations were found to have violated advertising and children’s programming rules — but WNAC LLC says they prove that Nexstar is negligent in upholding its obligations as a licensed broadcaster.

To that end, WNAC LLC says it discovered numerous instances in which Nexstar-owned WPRI (Channel 12, CBS) failed to upload records related to political advertising in a timely manner. (In Providence, WPRI is operated as part of a duopoly with WNAC-TV.)

Under federal rules, “timely” is typically interpreted as one business day, and the uploading of the political documents is intended to provide rival candidates or causes with an opportunity to buy an equitable amount of advertising time on a station.

But WPRI didn’t give political opponents that opportunity, because it failed to furnish records about political ad spending within the one business day time frame as required, WNAC LLC.

For instance, WPRI aired political advertising from then-Congressional candidate Jim Langevin in late October 2020, and records related to that ad campaign should have been uploaded to the public inspection file around the same time. But WNAC LLC says the records weren’t actually disclosed until early December, well beyond the FCC’s key deadline for furnishing them. (Langevin, who was up for re-election, won the campaign.)

That oversight repeated itself a number of times in 2020, with political ad campaigns running on WPRI without being disclosed for several weeks. Those ad campaigns included spots for Senator Joe Kennedy, Congressional candidate Jake Auchincloss and organizations like New Leadership PAC and Tobacco-Free Kids.

Despite the late filings, Nexstar affirmed it was in compliance with public inspection file requirements when it applied to renew WPRI’s license late last year. WNAC LLC says the affirmation was fraudulent, because WPRI failed to file political advertising-related documents numerous times.

DOCUMENT: Read WNAC LLC’s informal objection and Nexstar’s response (PDF)

To make matters worse, WPRI said it examined the public inspection files of more than a dozen other Nexstar-owned or controlled TV stations whose licenses are also up for renewal and found a similar pattern of late political file disclosures at each of those stations.

The major cities where Nexstar Media Group owns or operates one or more local television stations. (Courtesy image)
The major cities where Nexstar Media Group owns or operates one or more local television stations. (Courtesy image)

The issues plague some of Nexstar’s biggest TV stations in markets like San Francisco (KRON Channel 4), Buffalo (WIVB Channel 4, CBS), Fresno (KGPE Channel 47, CBS) and Honolulu (KHON Channel 2, Fox). As with WPRI, WNAC LLC has challenged applications to renew the licenses at those other stations, claiming Nexstar fraudulently claimed its employees uploaded public inspection records in a timely manner.

“Even one late upload means that a licensee cannot accurately make an affirmative Timely [Public Inspection File] Upload Certification in a license renewal application,” WNAC LLC argued in a brief reviewed by The Desk. “It is also highly relevant to this case that the [FCC’s Media Bureau] has informally advised that more than five late uploads by a station during the license term is potentially actionable.”

The challenges involving Nexstar’s application to renew its TV station licenses has not been previously reported, and The Desk was unable to find any information about the matter in financial disclosure reports made by Nexstar to its shareholders over the last six months. The company is the largest independent operator of licensed broadcast TV stations, with more than 150 owned by Nexstar and around four dozen more operated through shared services agreements.

In responses filed with the FCC, Nexstar doesn’t dispute some of its political filings were late, and even filed amended renewal applications earlier this year after substantiating some of WNAC LLC’s allegations.

The company said its earlier affirmation that it complied with public inspection file conditions was based on information supplied by station employees, which proved to be wrong in some cases.

“Nexstar has established policies and procedures to ensure political file materials are uploaded in a manner consistent with FCC rules and policy,” the company wrote in a brief filed with the FCC earlier this month. “Nexstar has conducted many trainings on the subject for all of its stations and also provided its stations with manuals, guidelines, and other reference materials. However, Nexstar stations are not perfect, and lapses will occur despite reasonable efforts to prevent them. This may be particularly true during election seasons, when station staff are exceptionally busy.”

With that said, Nexstar says WNAC LLC’s informal objection doesn’t require any FCC action, because none of the allegations matter when it comes to renewing one broadcast license, let alone a dozen.

“[The objection] serves only to harass Nexstar and waste the [FCC]’s time and resources,” Nexstar said in a brief filed earlier this month. It continued: “Suggesting that the FCC should designate the stations’ renewal applications for hearing is ridiculous; the FCC has declined to do so even where it found a licensee (unlike Nexstar) to have ‘no reasonable basis for believing its certification was correct.'”

As of Tuesday, the FCC has still not determined whether WNAC LLC’s objection warrants a hearing, and Nexstar’s applications to renew the licenses of its stations is still pending.

The challenge adds to several legal and administrative headaches Nexstar faces involving the operation of its TV stations and its business as a whole.

Earlier this year, satellite broadcaster DirecTV filed a federal antitrust lawsuit alleging Nexstar’s control of TV stations owned by Mission Broadcasting and White Knight Broadcasting violates federal rules that are intended to prohibit one company from reaching more than 38 percent of the American TV audience with its stations. The lawsuit also accuses Nexstar of colluding with Mission and White Knight to inflate carriage fees charged to cable and satellite companies for the privilege of providing local stations to its subscribers.

The lawsuit was a precursor to a much-bigger issue involving DirecTV and Nexstar that saw the broadcaster black out more than 150 local TV stations on DirecTV’s satellite and streaming service in July. The stations are still unavailable to DirecTV customers.

Nexstar is also facing opposition from several industry groups over a proposed deal involving WADL (Channel 38), a low-rated, family-owned Detroit TV station. In May, Mission Broadcasting announced it was buying WADL for $75 million; The Desk reported the move was intended to provide Nexstar with a new affiliate for its CW Network programming, which is being dropped from WKBD (Channel 50) next month.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).