Online Public Inspection File Deadline Fast Approaching

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted January 11, 2013

By Paul A. Cicelski

Despite the many distractions of the new year, it's important not to forget that by February 4, 2013, all full-power and Class A television stations must have completed the process of uploading public file materials to the FCC's online public file system.

As we reported in July and August of last year, the FCC's new rules require television stations to replace the public files they maintain at their studios with electronic files hosted online by the FCC. The new rules mean that each station must inventory their current paper public inspection file to determine which documents need to be uploaded to the FCC's website. In order to comply with the new rules, stations must make sure that everything in their current paper public inspection file is uploaded to the FCC's website except political broadcasting files created prior to August 2, 2012, and emails and letters from the public. While the focus has been on shifting the paper files into an online public file database, stations must remember that they will still be required to keep, at a minimum, the emails and letters from the public in the paper public file at each station's main studio, and therefore take steps to ensure that the public will still be able to access that file during normal business hours. In other words, just because most of the file will be online, the procedures for allowing the public to promptly review public file materials that remain at the main studio must remain in place, including the need to ensure that the public can access the file during lunch hours.

Also, keep in mind that ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates located in the top 50 markets were required to begin placing new political file information online on August 2, 2012. These stations are not required to upload any political file documentation that was placed in the file prior to August 2, but they are required to keep the pre-August 2 materials in their paper public inspection files for two years from the date on which the documents were created. All other TV and Class A stations must continue to maintain their political files at their main studio, unless they voluntarily choose to upload their political files in advance of the July 1, 2014 deadline to do so.

Among the items that stations are required to upload on their own from their paper files to the FCC's online file:

  • Citizens Agreements (if any)
  • Political Files since August 2, 2012 (top 50/top 4 networks for now)
  • Annual EEO Public File Reports
  • Responses to FCC inquiries
  • Records concerning commercial limits for children's programming
  • Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists
  • Public Notices of assignment/transfer applications and renewal of license applications
  • Carriage elections of must-carry/retransmission consent
  • Joint sales agreements or time brokerage agreements
  • Non-commercial station donor lists
  • Class A statements of continuing eligibility
There are also a number of other documents that the FCC has indicated it will upload into stations' online public files. However, it is important that stations diligently check their online public files to ensure they are complete, as the ultimate responsibility for maintaining a complete online public file is the station's, and not the FCC's. Items that should be automatically uploaded by the FCC are:
  • Authorizations
  • Applications and related materials
  • Contour maps
  • Ownership Reports (FCC Form 323)
  • The Public and Broadcasting Manual
  • EEO Forms (Forms 396 and 397)
  • Investigation materials originated by the FCC
  • Children's Programming Reports (FCC Form 398)
Given the sheer size of public inspection files, the uploading process can be very labor intensive, and stations that have not yet commenced that process should immediately turn their attention to it. Stations should also understand that their public inspection files are now open to anyone with an Internet connection, making it for less likely that any omissions will go unnoticed. As recent issues of our monthly FCC Enforcement Monitor indicate, the FCC has not been hesitant to fine even noncommercial stations for public inspection file violations, and we are definitely seeing a trend by the FCC of issuing $15,000 fines rather than the base fine of $10,000. Time to get those page scanners running at top speed.

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