Securing a Loan to a Broadcaster, Part 2 - Bankruptcy Cases and Liens on Licenses

by Davis Wright Tremaine LLP
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When an FCC licensee goes bankrupt, the question of how to treat the interests of secured lenders is the one that, from time to time, comes up for debate. Two recent cases deal with this issue – one appearing to be an aberration that would make lending to a broadcast licensee difficult if not impossible, while the second providing a more lender-friendly interpretation after a detailed analysis of the history of FCC and court precedent on this issue, affirming what most in the broadcast community have assumed, for most of the last two decades, is settled law. We wrote last week about how the FCC’s prohibition on taking a security interest in an FCC license can make enforcement of liens difficult in a normal debtor-creditor context. Today, we’ll look at how the FCC’s prohibition on taking liens in a license has significance in the bankruptcy context.

Due to the FCC’s prohibition on taking a security interest in an FCC license, if the FCC reviews any security agreement with a licensee company, it will insist that lenders need to make clear in such agreement that the lender has no security interest directly in the FCC license. In most agreements, lenders now have that language, with a caveat that such an interest is renounced only for so long as FCC policy remains in its current state – though, as set forth below, that policy does not look like it will change anytime soon. As the FCC license is usually the most valuable asset of a licensee, to preserve its ability to get at the value of that license in the event of a default on the loan, even though it cannot take a lien in the license itself, the lender will include a provision in its security agreement that gives it a secured position in the proceeds from any sale of that license and in all other intangible assets of the licensee. Having a secured interest is important to lenders as it gives the lender priority over unsecured creditors in the event of a bankruptcy. Thus, if the lender goes into bankruptcy and there are insufficient funds to pay all creditors (as is usually the case), the secured party will get first crack at the assets that are available to pay debts. The question of whether such priority should attach to the proceeds from the sale of an FCC license, when that sale may not occur until after the bankruptcy has been declared, was the heart of the controversy in the recent cases.

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