Online Political File a Hot Topic at Vegas NAB Show and Beyond

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted April 20, 2012

By Paul A. Cicelski

As many of you know by now, very few topics were hotter during the NAB Show in Las Vegas this week than the FCC's looming April 27 public meeting vote to decide how to implement its proposals to require online posting of TV station public inspection files. As Laurie Lynch Flick reported previously here, the FCC is proposing to require television broadcasters to replace their existing locally-maintained public inspection files with digital public inspection files to be maintained online, including stations' political records. The online public file has broadcasters concerned because creating and maintaining a centralized online public file substantially increases their public inspection file burdens, while the political portion of the file contains sensitive competitive and pricing information that broadcasters would prefer not be made available to competitors online on a near real-time basis.

The proposals have proven to be so controversial that earlier today the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) filed a request with the FCC to grant a two business day delay of the commencement of the "sunshine period" in the FCC's online public file proceeding. For those who are not familiar with the "sunshine period" requirement, the term refers to the week before one of the Commission's monthly public business meetings (known as "open meetings") during which time all contacts with Commission staff concerning the matters to be decided at the meeting are prohibited, until such time as the text of the Commission's decision is publicly released. The sunshine period for the online file proceeding is scheduled to commence today, and the NAB is asking the FCC to delay the effective date until next Tuesday, April 24, in order to allow interested parties to continue to discuss the FCC's proposals with FCC staff members.

To make matters even more interesting, yesterday a media placement company asked the FCC to refrain from going forward at the April 27 meeting with any requirements regarding placing political files online.

The precise details of the FCC's online public file requirements, including those for the political file, aren't likely to be released until the FCC's April 27 monthly meeting. However, during discussions at the NAB Show, FCC staff informed broadcasters that the FCC's Order is expected to, at a minimum, require online posting of public inspection files by all television stations this year, with the posting of the online political file portion of the public file to be phased in, initially applying to network-affiliated stations in the top 50 markets. All other television stations would be required to move their political files online within the next two years.

Regardless of the precise approach taken by the FCC for putting political file information online, stations would be wise to ensure that their current political file is complete and that their political sales practices comply with the numerous legal requirements. Moving a poorly kept political file online is an invitation to trouble.

A good place to start for ensuring your political file compliance is with our Political Broadcasting Advisory, which is regularly updated and is a comprehensive guide for broadcasters to use to help them comply with the FCC's political broadcasting rules, including the political file requirements. The time to fix any public file/political file and political sales problems is now, before the data has to be posted on the Internet.

As the details of the Order the FCC is expected to release on April 27 leak out, the FCC continues to revise its positions and there may be a few more twists and turns before we are done. The FCC has moved this item to the front burner of its agenda about as fast as any in recent memory. What makes it more of an immediate concern for TV broadcasters is that the item will be released just prior to the time TV stations are preparing for what is expected to be the most expensive presidential campaign advertising blitz on record.

As the online public file/political file debate rages on, there can be no doubt we will have plenty more to discuss regarding these issues in the coming days and weeks ahead.

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