In a Report and Order that has been in the making since at least 1998, the FCC yesterday adopted new ownership reporting forms for both commercial and noncommercial broadcast stations. The FCC’s goal in adopting these new forms is to enhance the completeness and accuracy of its broadcast ownership data by (i) again imposing a unique identifier for each attributable interest holder—one that is tied to that individual’s Social Security Number (SSN); (ii) collecting race, gender and ethnicity data from noncommercial licensees as it has for some time now from commercial licensees; and (iii) consolidating the noncommercial biennial ownership report filing deadline with that of biennial ownership reports for commercial broadcast stations, which will now be December 1 of odd-numbered years for both commercial and noncommercial stations. In the process, the FCC has modified the reports to incorporate a number of reforms requested by broadcasters and their counsel to eliminate redundant and burdensome idiosyncrasies, glitches, and design flaws in the current commercial ownership reporting form. This will hopefully alleviate at least some of the pain involved in filing what has been one of the FCC’s most duplicative and burdensome forms.
For the past several years, the FCC has required commercial broadcast licensees to include in their ownership reports a unique identifier, called a Federal Registration Number (FRN), for each attributable interest holder. When first imposed, stations objected to the FRN mandate because the FCC requires individuals seeking an FRN to supply their full SSN to the Commission. In an attempt to quell that outcry, the FCC created a temporary solution called a Special Use FRN (SUFRN), that broadcasters could utilize when attributable interest holders balked at providing their SSNs.
The FCC has now introduced another alternative to obtaining a full FRN, called the Restricted Use FRN (RUFRN), available only for use in filing ownership reports. The FCC considers the RUFRN to be a superior solution to the SUFRN (had enough acronyms yet?) because the SUFRN collected no information whatsoever about the person to which it was assigned and therefore did not further the FCC’s goal of increased accuracy in the ownership data being collected. The basis for the FCC’s belief in the superiority of the RUFRN is that in order to apply for a RUFRN, an individual must supply the FCC with their full name, date of birth, home address, the last four digits of their SSN, and all of that individual’s previously used FRNs and SUFRNs. This information will not be made publicly available, but will enable the FCC to uniquely identify each attributable interest holder in a broadcast station.
Noncommercial broadcasters in particular still oppose the FCC’s efforts to collect such personal data, since the Commission’s multiple ownership rules do not even apply to them, and they worry that the data breaches and hacks that have afflicted other federal agencies will eventually affect the FCC as well. Commissioner Pai’s separate statement is particularly worth reading in that regard. While the FCC will allow continued use of a SUFRN, it will permit such use only where an interest holder has refused to apply for a RUFRN or to provide the broadcaster in which it holds an interest with the information needed to obtain a RUFRN for that investor. The FCC has indicated that stations are at risk of significant enforcement actions should the SUFRN option be abused. With the new RUFRN in place, the FCC will fix its search engine so that the “search by FRN/RUFRN” function will actually return a list of the broadcast stations in which the holder of the searched FRN/RUFRN has an attributable interest.
The FCC also consolidated the ownership report filing deadline for noncommercial stations with that of commercial stations, and extended that date an extra month, from November 1 to December 1 of odd-numbered years, to allow more time for all U.S. broadcast stations to draft their reports, hit the file button, and crash the Commission’s filing system. Here’s hoping that the FCC will make the biennial filing system available well in advance of October 1, 2017 to allow more time for the increased number of filers to draft and file their reports by the December 1 deadline.
As expected, the FCC revised the ownership report form for noncommercial licensees to collect race, gender and ethnicity information for all interest holders, just as it now does for commercial licensees. In addition, for both commercial and noncommercial filers, it will now be possible to select more than one ethnicity from the list to better report those who identify as being multiracial, a change required by OMB.
In a welcome expression of candor, the Commission conceded that the current version of the commercial station ownership report form has led to widespread errors in those reports, undermining the integrity of all ownership data reported. In light of that big admission, the FCC adopted a number of simplifications suggested by broadcasters that will hopefully ease the filing burden and increase the accuracy of the information submitted. Here are the highlights:
- A parent company will be able to report its ownership interest in multiple licensees on the same form. Previously, each ownership report could only contain data about a single licensee. As a result, companies that held their broadcast licenses in separate licensee subsidiaries had to file multiple parent company reports, most of which were identical to one another except for the substitution of one licensee name and call sign(s) for another. The multiple duplicative reports clogged the filing system, causing it to grind to a halt for all filers, even those with simpler reporting structures.
- There will be no more spreadsheets. Because the FRN search function never worked and only one licensee could be reported per ownership report, it was nearly impossible to determine whether an interest holder reported on one station’s report also had an interest in stations reported in another report. The FCC’s fix to this was to have broadcasters prepare spreadsheets, some of which were thousands of lines long, and upload them to the ownership reports. This again slowed the system for all filers and the spreadsheets were difficult to read, undermining the transparency the FCC was seeking. Now, if additional stations need to reported, they can be added directly in the form itself.
- Additional options and questions will be added to make the form itself more useful to the FCC. These include allowing filers to indicate whether they are organized as a Limited Liability Company, and whether an ownership interest is held jointly, such as a stock interest that is held by spouses as tenants by the entirety. The new forms will also require filers to indicate whether they are a Tribal Entity, which furthers the Commission’s diversity goals, as well as to list those that are deemed to have an attributable interest in a station due to a Local Marketing or Joint Sales agreement.
Finally, the Report and Order indicates that the FCC is also making a number of common sense changes to the functionality of the ownership report filing system, including sub-form cloning, auto-fill mechanisms, data saving and validation routines, and enhanced checking for inconsistent data. If these terms sound like Greek to you, then you clearly have not been involved in the filing of ownership reports at the FCC. If that is indeed the case, count yourself fortunate, and rejoice that the FCC has taken steps to alleviate that mysterious pain broadcasters experience in odd-numbered years.