News Ticker

FCC’s Travis LeBlanc: big ideas, big fines, big changes

Originally published in TVNewsCheck

Travis LeBlanc, FCC enforcement bureau chief Travis LeBlanc, FCC enforcement bureau chief

To say that FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc has shaken up the commission’s enforcement activity would be an understatement. LeBlanc has made big moves that in the past year since he came on board have resulted in big cases against big-name companies and the largest fines ever levied by the FCC.

A prosecutor by trade from the California Attorney General’s office, LeBlanc has deliberately set out to distinguish himself from past FCC enforcement chiefs.

“I come with a bit of a different approach,” LeBlanc told an NAB session Tuesday morning. “I think about prevention, and not just enforcement,” he said.

LeBlanc argued that his approach should be better for the industry. “We’re moving faster, we’re not holding up renewals — there’s certainty,” he said. “It’s a much better world than it was a few years ago.”

Dealing with a flat-lined budget, LeBlanc said he had no choice but to focus more “on the kinds of issues that matter most to ordinary Americans … to get maximum impact. That means more of some work and less of other work,” he said.

For example, instead of focusing on junk faxes, he’s turning to smart phones, robocalls or text messages scams, he said.

LeBlanc has brought big cases against big companies, like AT&T and T-Mobile for cramming, Marriott for blocking wi-fi. After the Marriott case, many hotels got rid of blocking. “That’s the kind of impact that is great for us to see,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc brought cases against several big media companies — like Viacom and ESPN — for airing a commercial for the Olympus Has Fallen movie that contained the prohibited sound of Emergency Alert System tones.

As part of Le Blanc’s emphasis on consumer protection, he brought back indecency enforcements and he wanted to make sure that the first one he brought was a “significant” one.

Though broadcasters are still reeling from the maximum $325,000 indecency fine against Schurz Communications’ WDBJ Roanoke, Va., LeBlanc said it isn’t all about fines.

“There is a perception that the amount of fines has gone up. We’re not just focused on fines. A number of cases offer restitution to victims,” he said. Of the $105 million in penalties the FCC has levied, $80 million is for returning money to consumers.

Part of his consumer protection approach includes more reliance on consent decrees, LeBlanc said. That means broadcasters can’t settle an action with a face-saving “voluntary contribution” to the U.S. Treasury. In keeping with LeBlanc’s take-no-prisoners approach, those will clearly be identified as civil penalties.

Consent decrees are also more specific and have a robust background section that explains the violation and provides guidance to the industry. “Before when you read a consent decree, you didn’t know what went wrong,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc tried to reassure broadcasters that the FCC’s plan to “modernize” field operations by reducing the number of offices to eight, wasn’t a slight to the business.

“We looked at how the world has changed … the TV public file is online, so we don’t have to send someone to the station to inspect it. When there are tower lighting outages we have an automated system that notifies the owner. There is a reduced need for the fields,” LeBlanc said. “We’ll have larger offices instead of one- to two-person offices, we’ll have engineers; interference is our primary mission.”

One broadcaster in rural northwest Tennessee wasn’t convinced. “Those of us there in small markets, the FCC is those field offices,” the broadcaster said. “When an FCC inspector walks in, he is almost the voice of god. Shutting those offices down, I don’t think is a good idea. I ask that you rethink that.”