FCC Administration Category

Breaking News: FCC Kills Critical Information Needs Study

Scott R. Flick

Posted February 28, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

Following a firestorm of media attention regarding the FCC's efforts to examine newsroom decision making as part of a Critical Information Needs (CIN) Study, the FCC had announced a week ago that it would modify the study to eliminate the questions directed at media entities regarding their newsroom decisions.

That announcement, however, did not calm the furor, with calls from Congress for hearings and legislation to prevent the FCC from proceeding with the study. Late today, the FCC sought to put an end to this certainly unwelcome attention. It released a terse statement, the entirety of which is: "The FCC will not move forward with the Critical Information Needs study. The Commission will reassess the best way to fulfil [sic] its obligation to Congress to identify barriers to entry into the communications marketplace faced by entrepreneurs and other small businesses."

Whatever else it may represent, this past week's activities demonstrate the challenges for a government agency forced to operate on "Internet Time" and facing a continuous news cycle. In prior eras, FCC dramas like this would have played out over months or years. In this case, once it became clear that the study was turning into political fodder, the FCC moved with surprising speed to back away from it, and then abandon it entirely, rather than continue to be the subject of news reports and late night monologues. The typo in today's one sentence announcement (which was subsequently fixed in later versions) presumably indicates the haste with which it was issued, likely in an effort to put the issue to bed before the weekend and avoid a fresh round of media commentary regarding the Study next week.

While the speed with which the FCC moved is impressive, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this week's events is that, without even conducting the study, the FCC learned a lot about how newsrooms operate, and probably wishes it hadn't.


Breaking News: FCC Moves Up Ownership Report Deadline (Slightly)

Scott R. Flick

Posted December 9, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

As our own Lauren Lynch Flick reported last month, the deadline for commercial broadcast stations to file their biennial ownership reports with the FCC, which the FCC in August moved from November 1st to December 2nd, and then in November moved from December 2nd to December 20th, has now been moved up, but just by a little.

In a Public Notice released today, the FCC announced that:

The Media Bureau previously issued an order granting requests to extend the 2013 biennial ownership report filing deadline to December 20, 2013. Subsequently, a power outage of the FCC headquarters building's electrical systems, as required by the District of Columbia Fire Code, was scheduled. The Commission's systems, including CDBS, will become unavailable after business hours on the evening of the filing deadline. The outage is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. on December 20, 2013. Filers must complete electronic filing of their 2013 biennial Ownership Report for Commercial Broadcast Stations prior to that time to comply with the filing due date.

Because the FCC's website has been known to struggle on days where large numbers of filings are due, broadcasters should generally avoid filing documents on their due date unless there is good reason to do so. However, one benefit of electronic filing has been the ability to file after normal business hours, when traffic on the FCC's filing databases eases. That will not be possible this year, and for those on the West Coast, the 7 p.m. (Eastern) deadline means that they will need to get their ownership reports on file by 4 p.m. Pacific time, before their business day actually ends.

As a result, broadcasters will need to be extra vigilant this year to ensure that they don't find themselves trying to file their ownership reports late in the day on December 20th, only to realize that the FCC's filing system is moving at the speed of molasses from the high volume of filers. When the lights go out at the FCC on December 20th, so will your chance of a timely filing.


FCC Provides LPFM Window Debriefing

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted December 3, 2013

By Paul A. Cicelski

Earlier today, the FCC released a Public Notice detailing the results of the recent LPFM filing window, along with guidance as to what happens next. More than 2,800 low power FM (LPFM) applications were filed during the October 15 - November 15 (as extended) filing window, with the largest numbers coming from Texas (303), California (283), and Florida (276). To put that number in perspective, if it were possible to grant all of the filed LPFM applications, it would increase the number of radio stations in the U.S. (not including translators) by nearly 20%.

However, many if not most of the applications will indeed conflict with each other, so part of the reason for today's Public Notice is to respond to inquiries regarding the processing of singleton and mutually exclusive applications. This includes such topics as amendments, settlement agreements between mutually exclusive applicants, time-sharing agreements, petitions to deny, and how parties can obtain reinstatement of dismissed applications. Given the more than a decade it took to process applications from the 2003 FM translator filing window, the breakneck speed at which the FCC is moving to process LPFM applications is notable.

According to the Public Notice, the FCC intends to begin rapidly processing applications as early as this month, stating that:

  • The Bureau's first priority has been to identify singleton applications (applications that do not conflict with other applications filed in the window), of which there appear to be about 900. The FCC indicates it hopes to begin granting such applications in January 2014.
  • Later this month, the Bureau will release a Public Notice identifying the mutually exclusive (MX) application groups.
  • Effective with the release of the Public Notice on MX application groups, mutually exclusive applicants will have the ability to file technical amendments and/or enter into settlement and time-sharing agreements to resolve application conflicts.
  • Following the Bureau's review of technical amendments and agreements filed to remove application conflicts, the FCC will identify one or more tentative selectees from each mutually exclusive group. The Bureau will then analyze petitions to deny filed against each tentative selectee, and either grant or dismiss that application. In certain cases, the FCC will identify a successor tentative selectee or selectees after acting on the application of the original tentative selectee.

The Public Notice also provided the following information:

Mutually Exclusive Applications: For applications that do not meet the minimum separation requirements of the FCC's rules, parties are allowed to negotiate settlements and/or file technical amendments to resolve conflicts after the FCC releases the MX Public Notice. As noted above, the FCC intends to release the MX Public Notice later this month.

Amendments: Once the MX Public Notice is released, parties will be allowed to file certain minor amendments to their applications. Major amendments can only be filed by tentative selectees, and only after the FCC announces which applicants have been anointed with that status.

Settlement Agreements: MX applicants will also be allowed to resolve technical conflicts through settlement agreements among applicants, including agreements to make technical amendments to their applications to eliminate the conflict. The Public Notice spells out a detailed process applicants must follow to notify the FCC of their settlement plans.

Voluntary Time-Share Agreements: Parties are also allowed to enter into "partial or universal time-share" agreements. Time-share agreements must (i) specify the proposed hours of operation of each time-share proponent; (ii) not include simultaneous operation of the time-share proponents; and (iii) include a proposal by each time-share proponent to operate for at least 10 hours per week.

Petitions to Deny: All applications that the Commission accepts are subject to petition to deny filings within 30 days after a Public Notice announcing that the application has been accepted for filing.

Dismissed Applications: The FCC is required to dismiss any application that does not comply with the FCC's minimum distance separation requirements to pre-existing facilities. Any application that does not meet the separation requirements to existing facilities cannot be amended to fix that problem.

It is clear from today's Public Notice that the FCC is working quickly to try and wrap up much of this proceeding by Christmas or shortly after the new year begins. Parties involved or potentially affected by this proceeding should therefore start adjusting their holiday schedules to be able to move quickly in response to the promised notices that will be rolling out of the FCC in the next few weeks.


FCC Announcement Provides Guidance on Post-Shutdown Filing Deadlines

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted October 18, 2013

By Paul A. Cicelski

As Scott Flick of our office reminded everyone yesterday morning, the FCC shut down from October 1, 2013 through October 16, 2013, and upon reopening, suspended filing deadlines until it could sort out some rational way of returning to normality. Late last night, the FCC announced its solution to that problem. After the past few weeks of uncertainty, those regulated by the FCC now know how to proceed (more or less). The FCC's approach will win no points for elegant simplicity, but it is an earnest--and appreciated--effort to avoid merely going with a "one size fits all" approach.

According to the Public Notice:

Flings, with the exception of [Network Outage Reporting System] filings and certain other specified filings, that were due between October 1 and October 6 will be due on October 22, 2013. Filings, with the exception of NORS filings and certain other specified filings, that were due between October 7 and October 16 will be due 16 days after the original filing date, an extension equivalent to the period of the Commission's closure. Thus, for example, a filing that would have been due on October 7, will be due on October 23, an extension of 16 days. To the extent the revised due dates for filings under this Public Notice fall on a weekend or other Commission holiday, they will be due on the next business day. Finally, any regulatory and enforcement filings that would otherwise be required to be filed between October 17 and November 4 with the exception of the NORS filings and other specified filings, will be due for filing on November 4, 2013 (which is the first business day following a 16-day period after the Commission's October 17 reopening).

That Public Notice also added that:

To the extent the due dates for filings to which reply or responsive pleadings are allowed are extended by this Public Notice, the due dates for the reply or responsive pleadings are extended by the same number of days. Thus, for example, if comments were originally due on October 30 and reply comments due ten days later, comments would now be due on November 4 and reply comments on November 14. In addition, any STAs expiring between October 1, 2013 and October 22, 2013 are extended until November 4.

FCC regulatees should read the public notice in full for more detail, and to discern whether their planned filings fall into that "other specified filings" category mentioned above, for which the FCC has announced yet more individualized deadlines.

The federal shutdown has not been easy on anyone inside or outside the FCC, and we have received an absolute deluge of calls from clients trying to deal with the disruption. With last night's announcement, FCC applicants now have a path forward. Let the frenzied filing begin!


Breaking News: FCC Reopens and Suspends Filing Deadlines

Scott R. Flick

Posted October 17, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

As the FCC reopens today after being shut down for 16 days, it has reactivated its website and posted the following notice:

SUSPENSION OF FILING DEADLINES

As a result of the recent shutdown of Commission services, including access to electronic dockets on the Commission's web site, due to a government-wide lapse in appropriations, we suspend all Commission filing deadlines that occurred during the shutdown or that will occur on or before October 21, other than Network Outage Reporting System (NORS) filing deadlines, until further notice. The Commission will soon issue further guidance on revised filing deadlines.

We recommend that parties refrain from submitting filings seeking additional relief until after they consider the further guidance.


Given that this was the first government shutdown of the online era, today's announcement is welcome news for many FCC filers. Unlike in previous shutdowns, where applications could be prepared offline (or "on paper" as the communications bar refers to it) and just submitted when the government reopens, the FCC's movement of most applications to online filings made this shutdown far more disruptive. With the FCC website shut down, applicants couldn't even prepare their applications, much less file them, meaning that there will be a lot of activity on the FCC website over the next week as applicants make up for lost time. We'll know in the next few days whether the newly reactivated FCC website is able to handle that sudden load.

Of course, how intense that activity will be depends on how much additional time the FCC provides for filings in its promised "further guidance" announcement. Stay tuned.


FCC Commences E-Rate Program Overhaul

Christine A. Reilly Glenn S. Richards

Posted August 22, 2013

By Christine A. Reilly and Glenn S. Richards

The August 20, 2013 Federal Register ("FedReg") included a notice officially establishing the comment and reply cycle associated with the Federal Communications Commission's ("FCC" or "Commission") recently released Modernizing the E-Rate Program for Schools and Libraries Notice of Proposed Rulemaking ("NPRM").1 According to the FedReg notice, comments are due September 16, 2013 and reply comments are due October 16, 2013. This is the Commission's latest effort to modernize and streamline the E-Rate program.

The catalyst for this ambitious initiative is President Obama's ConnectED initiative (the "Initiative")2, which establishes that within five years 99 percent of U.S. students will have access to broadband and high-speed Internet access (at least 100 MBPS with a goal of 1 GPS within five years) within their schools and libraries. The Initiative includes: 1) providing the training and support for teachers needed for the effective use of technology in the classroom and 2) encouraging the development and deployment of complimentary devices and software to enhance learning experiences and 3) resurrecting the U.S. as a world leader in educational achievement.

The E-rate program was created in 1997 to "ensur[e] that schools and libraries ha[d] the connectivity necessary to enable students and library patrons to participate in the digital world."3 According to the NPRM, the program commenced when "only 14 percent of the classrooms had access to the Internet, and most schools with Internet access (74 percent) used dial-up Internet access."4 Seven years later, "nearly all schools had access to the Internet, and 94 percent of all instructional classrooms had Internet access." A year later, "nearly all public libraries were connected to the Internet...."5

The E-rate program requires recipients to file annual funding requests. Those funding requests are categorized as either Priority One or Priority Two. Priority One funds may be applied to support telecommunications services, telecommunications and Internet access services, including but not limited to, digital transmission services, e-mail services, fiber and dark fiber, interconnected VoIP, paging, telephone service, voice mail service and wireless Internet access. Priority Two funds are allocated for support of internal connections, including, but not limited to, cabling/connectors, circuit cards and components, data distribution, data protection, interfaces, gateways and antennas, servers and software. The funds are calculated as discounts for acquiring, constructing and maintaining the services. Discount eligibility, which ranges between 20-90 percent, is established by the recipient's status within the National School and Lunch Program ("NSLP") or an "alternative mechanism".6 The NPRM indicated that, "the most disadvantaged schools and libraries, where at least 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price school lunch, receive a 90 percent discount on eligible services, and thus pay only 10 percent of the cost of those services."7

The advent of high-capacity broadband has transformed Internet access into a portal by which students can experience interactive and collaborative learning experiences regardless of their geographic (rural or urban) location while preparing them to "compete in the global economy."8 As with most improvements, this transformation is encumbered in the ways and means for acquiring, constructing and maintaining such technology. The E-rate program, including its administration and funding provisions, has remained relatively unchanged since 1997. The initial, and still current, cap on funding was $2.25 billion dollars. The FCC has indicated that requests for funding have exceeded that cap almost from the beginning. In 2013, requests for E-rate funding totaled more than $4.9 billion dollars.

Article continues -- the full article can be found at FCC Commences E-Rate Program Overhaul.


FCC Grants More Time for 2013 Commercial Station Ownership Reports

Scott R. Flick

Posted August 6, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

A few moments ago, on its own motion, the FCC released an Order extending the 2013 deadline for commercial radio and television stations (including Class A and LPTV stations) to file their biennial ownership reports with the FCC. The reports, which are normally due on November 1 of odd-numbered years, must include ownership information that is accurate as of October 1 of that year.

Because of today's Order, however, the 2013 commercial ownership reports will be due on December 2, 2013 (December 1 is a Sunday). Despite the delayed filing date, the FCC indicates that the reports should still contain information that was accurate as of October 1, 2013.

Today's move by the FCC is hardly unprecedented. When the FCC first implemented a uniform biennial ownership report filing deadline for commercial stations in 2009, it ended up extending the deadline a number of times because of issues related to the new reporting form, etc. Ultimately, the deadline for 2009 reports fell on July 8, 2010, creating a fair amount of confusion for station owners who had bought their stations between November 2009 and July 2010, and therefore found themselves filing ownership reports certifying as to the ownership structure of the prior station owner.

In 2011, the FCC delayed the ownership report filing deadline by just thirty days. The short delay, along with growing familiarity with the revised reporting form, resulted in a much smoother reporting process in 2011.

Now, explaining the need for an extension in 2013, the FCC states that "we are aware that some licensees and parent entities of multiple stations may be required to file numerous forms and the extra time is intended to permit adequate time to prepare such filings. We believe it is in the public interest to provide additional time to ensure that all filers provide the Commission with accurate and reliable data on which the Commission may rely for research and other purposes." Despite the extension, the FCC is still encouraging licensees to file their ownership reports as early as possible.

While it is starting to look like these biennial extensions are becoming the norm given the complexity of reporting various ownership structures on the current form, it is risky for stations to start assuming that the deadline will always be extended. It would therefore be helpful if the FCC would permanently change the deadline so that licensees know they will always have sixty days to create and file the various biennial ownership reports required. Alternatively, the reporting form and process could be simplified so that completing the filing within 30 days would not be so difficult. Given the challenge that would present to the FCC, however, we may be seeing more of these ownership reporting extensions in the future.


Comments Due Soon on FCC's Proposed 2013 Regulatory Fees

Paul A. Cicelski Richard R. Zaragoza

Posted June 5, 2013

By Paul A. Cicelski and Richard R. Zaragoza

Last month, the FCC issued its latest annual Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) as well as a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) containing regulatory fee proposals for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013. Those who wish to file comments on the FCC's proposed fees must do so by June 19, 2013, with reply comments due by June 26, 2013. The NPRM proposes to collect just under $340 million in regulatory fees for FY 2013.

The FCC indicates that this year's Congressional budget sequester reduced FCC salaries and expenditures by $17 million but that the sequester does not impact the collection of regulatory fees. According to the NPRM, this is because the sequester does not change the amount Congress required the FCC to collect in the FY 2012 appropriation (and continued in effect in FY 2013 by virtue of the Further Continuing Appropriations Act in 2013).

The NPRM seeks comments on adoption and implementation of proposals to reallocate the Agency's regulatory fees based on the matters actually worked on by current FCC full time employees (FTEs) for FY 2013 to more accurately assess the costs of providing regulatory services to various industry sectors and to account for changes in the wireless and wireline industries in recent years. Understanding that a modification of its current fee allocation method based on FTE workload will result in significantly higher fees for some fee categories, the NPRM proposes to potentially cap rate increases at 7.5% for FY 2013.

The FCC's NPRM also asks for comment on the following:

  1. Combining Interstate Telecommunications Service Providers (ITSPs) and wireless telecommunications services into one regulatory fee category and using revenues as the basis for calculating the resulting regulatory fees;
  2. Using revenues to calculate regulatory fees for other industries that now use subscribers as the basis for regulatory fee calculations, such as the cable industry;
  3. Consolidating UHF and VHF television stations into one regulatory fee category;
  4. Proposing a regulatory fee for Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) equivalent to cable regulatory fees;
  5. Alleviating large fluctuations in the fee rate for Multiyear Wireless Services; and
  6. Determining whether the Commission should modify its methodology for collecting regulatory fees from those in declining industries (e.g., CMRS Messaging).

In the FNPRM, the FCC seeks comment on the how to treat, for regulatory fee purposes, services such as non-U.S.-Licensed Space Stations, Direct Broadcast Satellites and broadband.

The FCC also notes that it is seeking to modernize its electronic filing and payment systems. As a result, beginning on October 1, 2013, the FCC will no longer accept paper and check filings for payment of Annual Regulatory Fees. What that means is that this year's regulatory fee filing is likely the last time that regulatory fees can be paid without using electronic funds.

We will be publishing a full Advisory on the FY 2013 Regulatory Fees once they are adopted (likely this summer). You may also immediately access the FCC's FY 2013 proposed fee tables attached to the NPRM, in order to estimate, at least approximately, the size payment the FCC will be expecting from you this fall.


First Quarter FCC KidVid Reports Confirm Accuracy of Mayan Calendar

Scott R. Flick Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted March 26, 2013

By Scott R. Flick and Lauren Lynch Flick

At the end of every quarter, TV stations across the land must electronically file with the FCC a Form 398--The Children's Television Programming Report. However, stations attempting to do that filing for the first quarter of 2013 are discovering that the FCC's online filing system for those forms ends with the fourth quarter of 2012. As a result, it is preventing many TV stations from preparing their electronic report for the first quarter of 2013, rejecting all efforts to select "First Quarter 2013" as the report to be filed.

At first, it appeared that the FCC had bought into the "Mayan Prophecy" that the world was ending in December 2012, marking the end of the Mayan (and perhaps the FCC's) calendar. And, had the world actually ended in 2012, filing a Form 398 covering the first quarter of 2013 would have indeed ranked low on most broadcasters' "to do" lists. However, with 2013 well under way, TV stations are now flummoxed as to how to get the FCC's electronic filing system to allow the preparation and filing of a first quarter 2013 kidvid report.

Fortunately, there is an answer, but it requires a little background. We reported in a 2010 KidVid Advisory that the FCC had suddenly begun requiring stations to enter their FCC Registration Number and password as the final step before permitting a Form 398 to be filed. As it turned out, this was apparently the first step in creating a new FCC Form 398 filing system.

In July 2012, the FCC released what it termed an "alternate" link for accessing the Form 398 filing system and updated its user manual to indicate that the web address for filing the form is the alternate link. However, the FCC's main Children's Television Programming page on the Internet continues to show that the original link is the one to use for filing a Form 398, and until this quarter, that original link has continued to work correctly. Of course, most TV stations just have the original link bookmarked, and have no reason to visit the FCC's website/user manual to see if the filing procedures have been changed. Adding to the confusion is the fact that following the original link does not generate a warning or error message, but takes you to the same filing page stations have been using for years. It is only when a station tries to create a report for first quarter 2013 that a problem arises.

As a result, the "alternate" link is not just an alternate any more, and must be used to file all post-2012 kidvid reports. So, from here on out, use this link for filing your kidvid reports: http://licensing.fcc.gov/KidVidNew/public/filing/submit_login.faces

Note also that, at the new link, you will have to provide your call sign, Facility ID, FCC Registration Number and Password to even be able to log into the system. This is all information you previously needed to file a Form 398, but you supplied it at the end of the filing process. Now, you can't even get started without it. For TV stations that have been banging their heads against the wall trying to figure out why they can't prepare, much less file, their Form 398, using the alternate link should solve that problem. It may be a small problem compared to the end of the world, but then the Mayans never had to deal with online filing.


A Farewell to Commissioner McDowell and a Nod to the "Rational Regulator"

Scott R. Flick

Posted March 20, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

While in the works for a while, today's formal announcement by FCC Commissioner McDowell that he will be departing the FCC leaves a hole in the FCC's ranks that will be difficult to fill. In many regards, Commissioner McDowell was a throwback to an earlier time, both at the FCC and in Washington, in that his tenure was distinguished not just by his congenial nature, but by an abiding adherence to his regulatory principles, rather than to reaching a particular result. While I suspect he might bristle at being described as a "rational regulator", preferring instead to be known as a "devoted deregulator", Commissioner McDowell represented a common-sense approach to the communications industry and the business of regulating it.

Since the job of a lawyer is to obtain for a client the best result legally possible, you would think that lawyers would be big fans of the "predictable vote"--the commissioner whose policy positions are so embedded that there is little doubt as to where they will stand on any particular issue. And of course, if three of the five commissioners are on your side of an issue, that's a pretty warm and fuzzy place to be. The problem, however, is that for every time three of the five commissioners support your position, there will be a time when three of the five do not.

For that reason, an experienced lawyer will always prefer an inquisitive and open-minded regulator over an ideologue, even when it is an ideologue that agrees with you (today). While the independent-minded regulator will make you work to persuade them each and every time, the opportunity to persuade them is never foreclosed. If you fail to persuade them that your cause is just, then the failure is yours, and not just the result of an agency formalizing a preordained result.

Over the years, the FCC has been blessed with a number of commissioners that have been particularly good at compartmentalizing natural biases, and giving the parties before them a full and fair opportunity to make their case. Probably not coincidentally, many of these same commissioners have had both a healthy sense of humor and humility, putting those around them at ease and creating an environment conducive to an open and lively discussion of the issues. A final characteristic found among this select group--and helpful to anyone in Washington--is the ability to separate the advocate from the issue, recognizing that just because you disagree with the argument that the advocate must make today on behalf of a client doesn't diminish the advocate who, like the commissioner, is just trying to do their job to the best of their ability, and will have to make a different argument on behalf of a different client tomorrow.

Unfortunately, these characteristics are rarely those that will get you nominated by a President, or see you through a partisan confirmation process, so commissioners with all of these characteristics will inevitably tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Because of this, Commissioner McDowell will be missed by many who work at, and with, the FCC. In a town where some individuals have countdown calendars marking the number of days remaining in a particular government official's tenure, it is perhaps the ultimate backhanded Washington compliment that the most arresting part of Commissioner McDowell's departure announcement was where it noted he had been at the FCC for "nearly seven years." It's hard to believe it has been that long.


Yes, the FCC Still Wants Your Social Security Number

Scott R. Flick

Posted January 3, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

Earlier today, the FCC released a Sixth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking relating to its biennial broadcast ownership report filing requirements, reigniting a controversy over privacy, broadcast investment, and indeed, the very purpose of the reports.

In 2009, the FCC revamped its Form 323, the Commercial Broadcast Station Ownership Report, somewhat to address data collection shortcomings identified by the U.S. Government Accounting Office, but mostly to try to make the information more standardized and transparent for academic researchers wishing to generate industry-wide ownership statistics, particularly with regard to minority and female ownership. Unfortunately, the FCC's initial effort to revise the form seemed to have focused on trying to create a form that researchers would applaud, rather than on the "user experience" of those required to fill it out. The result was an awkward effort at forcing complex ownership information into highly redundant machine-readable spreadsheet formats.

Causing particular consternation, however, was a new requirement that every officer, director and shareholder mentioned in those reports have a unique FCC-issued Federal Registration Number (FRN). Because the FCC wants researchers to be able to track the race, ethnicity and gender of each individual connected with a broadcast station, it requires that those registering to obtain an FRN provide either a Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN), or a Social Security Number (SSN). This, according to the FCC, is necessary to allow it to differentiate between individuals that may have similar names and addresses.

Not surprisingly, this requirement met with fierce opposition from numerous groups, including: (1) those who have heard the admonition of government and others to never reveal your SSN to anyone or risk identity theft; (2) broadcasters, who found less than thrilling the experience of badgering their shareholders to either hand over their SSN or take the time to apply for and deliver the FRN themselves; (iii) broadcast lawyers, trying to get ownership reports on file by the deadline despite never hearing back from a significant percentage of those asked to cooperate to provide individual FRNs; and (iv) the investor community, which is not fond of the idea of having to hand over personal information because an individual chose to buy shares of a broadcast company rather than a movie studio.

After fierce opposition and various failed efforts to get the FCC to eliminate the requirement or at least create an alternate method of obtaining an FRN that didn't require an SSN or TIN, the FCC had a change of heart when required by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit to explain itself (you can read Paul Cicelski's discussion of that response here). The FCC defended the new ownership report filing requirements by telling the court that no one would be forced to hand over their SSN or TIN, as it was going to permit broadcasters to apply for a Special Use FRN (SUFRN, one of the most descriptive acronyms you will find) in cases where a party refuses to allow use of its SSN/TIN. In light of this representation, the court declined to intervene, and the FCC proceeded with implementation of the new ownership report form and requirements.

With the availability of SUFRNs and various other changes to the ownership report form and filing system, the FCC was finally able to make the oft-extended filing deadline stick, with commercial broadcasters filing their November 1, 2009 ownership reports by a July 8, 2010 deadline. However, the effort at making the data more accessible for researchers ended up making the form very burdensome for broadcasters required to complete and submit the reports. The biggest issue is structural--requiring the submission of the exact same information over and over in a filing system never lauded for its user-friendliness. During the numerous extensions of the filing deadline, the FCC did incorporate some features like copy and paste to lessen the burden of creating duplicative reports, but no tech feature can overcome the burden created by requiring the filing of the exact same ownership information over and over again for each station in a group rather than just reporting the ownership of that group (once) and the stations that are in it. Because of this, even a relatively small broadcast group can find itself filing well over a hundred ownership report forms.

The irony is that even media researchers--the very group for which this unwieldy reporting system was created--have begun to complain that the sheer volume of filings makes it difficult to sort through the mass of repetitive data. Many communications lawyers seem to agree, finding the "old" ownership reports far more useful in understanding a station's ownership than the current edition.

Still, broadcasters and the FCC seemed to have reached a detente over the reports, with broadcasters quietly grumbling to themselves about the mind-numbing repetitiveness of drafting and filing the reports, but (having seen in the earlier iterations of the "new" report) knowing how much worse it could be. That detente may have ended today when the FCC released the Sixth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which tentatively concludes that the need to uniquely identify each person connected with a broadcast station is so strong that it must end the availability of SUFRNs and require that all reported individuals get an FRN based upon their SSN or TIN.

While the FCC's conclusions are "tentative", and it requests comment on these and many other questions relating to the ownership report, you can feel the collective chill go down broadcasters' spines as the FCC proceeds to suggest that it could fine individuals who fail to provides an SSN/TIN-based FRN, and queries whether broadcasters should be required to warn their shareholders of that. Telling shareholders or potential shareholders that they face fines for electing to invest their money in broadcasting is not exactly the best way to attract investment to broadcasting, including investment by the minority and female investors the FCC so clearly wants.

But it is that last issue that raises the most curious point of all: to get minority and female ownership information, the FCC seeks to implement an awkward, intrusive, burdensome, privacy-insensitive ownership reporting regime premised on the need for both massive ownership filings and the tracking of individuals by their SSN to determine minority and female ownership trends in the industry. Wouldn't it be far simpler, less intrusive, and less burdensome to just ask broadcasters to provide in their ownership reports (or elsewhere) aggregate data on their minority and female officers, directors, and shareholders? Researchers could then just utilize that data to create industry totals rather than having to wade through mountains of unrelated ownership data to derive it themselves.

Instead of this simplified approach, the FCC seems intent upon using the clumsy mechanism of ownership reports to assess minority and female representation in the industry, stating in the Sixth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that "Unlike many of our filing obligations, the fundamental objective of the biennial Form 323 filing requirement is to track trends in media ownership by individuals with particular racial, ethnic, and gender characteristics." For those of us who have been in the industry for quite some time, that claim is surprising, as the very first sentence of Section 73.3615, the FCC rule that governs the filing of ownership reports, states: "The Ownership Report for Commercial Broadcast Stations (FCC Form 323) must be electronically filed every two years by each licensee of a commercial AM, FM, or TV broadcast station (a "Licensee"); and each entity that holds an interest in the licensee that is attributable for purposes of determining compliance with the Commission's multiple ownership rules."

In attempting to convert a reporting obligation designed to ensure multiple ownership rule compliance into an academic research tool on minority and female broadcast ownership, the FCC undermines both goals. Broadcasters have routinely provided the minority and female ownership data the FCC seeks without fuss, and can hardly be faulted for wishing to do so in a straightforward manner that: (a) doesn't require unnecessarily complex and redundant filings; and (b) doesn't require them to badger their shareholders for private information while threatening their shareholders with federal fines for failing to comply. Rather than "doubling down" on a flawed approach, perhaps it is time for the FCC to step back and reassess the most efficient way of obtaining the desired information--more efficient for broadcasters, more efficient for the FCC, and more efficient for media researchers.


FCC Proposes Wholesale Examination of Satellite and Earth Station Licensing and Operating Rules

Tony Lin

Posted October 4, 2012

By Tony Lin

The FCC has initiated a rulemaking proceeding seeking comments on a comprehensive review of its satellite and earth station licensing and operating rules. The nearly 100-page Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) is the FCC's first broad reexamination of its Part 25 rules in over fifteen years. Among other items, the FCC's proposed revisions include:

  • Focusing the rules on addressing interference issues and removing unnecessary Commission oversight and regulation of technical decisions.
  • Increasing the number of earth station applications eligible for routine and streamlined processing.
  • Removing unnecessary reporting rules and consolidating remaining requirements for annual reporting, while improving reporting of emergency contacts.
  • Providing greater flexibility to earth station applicants in verifying antenna performance.
  • Consolidating and clarifying several of the milestone requirements for space stations.
  • Codifying the FCC practice of granting a single earth station license covering multiple antennas located in close proximity to each other.
  • Updating, improving, and consolidating definitions and technical terms used throughout Part 25.

With these proposed changes, the FCC hopes to remove administrative burdens on stakeholders and FCC staff, expedite its licensing process, and to facilitate satellite and earth station operations. The comment filing deadlines have not yet been set, but will occur 45 days after the FCC's rulemaking order is published in the Federal Register. Parties interested in commenting on the FCC's proposals, or wishing to provide alternative proposals for the FCC to consider, will want to begin gearing up for this proceeding by talking these issues through with counsel to determine what to propose, and how best to present it to the FCC.


Online Public File for TV Launches and Stations Need to Adapt; Particularly Those with August 16th License Renewal Announcements

Paul A. Cicelski Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted August 6, 2012

By Lauren Lynch Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

On Thursday, the much anticipated Online Public Inspection File for television stations launched more or less successfully. To complete the task in the short time given them, the FCC staff put forth an Olympic effect, and while they were subject to some point deductions for a few stumbles in the regulatory gymnastics involved, they largely "stuck the dismount" as the system went live.

To its credit, the FCC clearly listened to the many voicemails and emails sent to FCC staff, as well as the comments and questions raised during the FCC's online demonstrations prior to launch. Some potentially nasty pitfalls for stations were ironed out via the FAQs, and the system will hopefully continue to be refined in the weeks and months ahead.

In the meantime, here is what stations need to do now that the system is operational:

1. Be sure you can log in. The FCC's staff reports that there were a considerable number of stations that had lost or forgotten their FRN (Federal Registration Number) and password or otherwise had trouble with the log in process. The FRN has become an all-access pass to a station's records with the FCC and anyone who has it can file applications on the station's behalf in any number of FCC filing systems. The potential for mischief that the FRN and password presents is worthy of another blog post, but for now, know that stations that have used multiple FRNs and passwords may find it hard to get access to their online public inspection files and need the staff's assistance in straightening the problem out.

2. Input your station address. On the Authorizations page and again on the Letters and Emails From the Public page, stations need to fill in the station's main studio address, telephone number and email contact information. Stations should also verify that their closed captioning contact is listed correctly.

3. Cross-reference the online public file on the station's home page. Stations that have websites must include a link on their home page to their online public inspection file and provide the public with contact information for a station employee that can assist the disabled in accessing the public file.

4. Remove out of date documents automatically uploaded by the FCC. Since the FCC simply linked its CDBS public view to the new online public files, there may be numerous items that can safely be discarded as no longer relevant. The FCC did not do this automatically because the retention periods for the various categories of documents that seem straightforward at first blush actually vary considerably depending on a station's individual circumstances. The FCC has given stations enough rope to hang themselves here, so care should be taken before documents are removed. Nevertheless, for most stations, a lot of material is being put out there that need not be.

5. Check the station's Section 73.1212(e) and BCRA (Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) folders. Chances are good that confusion has surrounded your station's 73.1212(e) folder for years, with the result that many stations' Section 73.1212(e) folders are empty. Section 73.1212(e) is the rule requiring stations to maintain a list of the executive officers of organizations that buy time to discuss political matters or controversial issues of public importance, and to place that list in the public inspection file. Most stations have treated these types of spots no differently than they do spots purchased by candidates for elective office. As a result, often when we visit a station's public file, we find neatly labeled folders for each candidate and each issue in the same section of the file cabinet and an empty folder labeled "Section 73.1212(e) Sponsorship Identification" at the very end of the drawer. When BCRA was implemented (requiring stations to maintain more detailed information about third-party political and issue ad buys involving controversial national issues), stations simply labeled more folders and added the BCRA materials to the political file right next to the materials on candidate ads. In addition, many stations found it difficult to distinguish between controversial national issues versus controversial state or local issues, and simply collected and maintained the same disclosure information for all ads that seemed "political" in nature, even if placing that information in the file was not actually required.

Technically (and here's where we separate the real communications lawyers from people who have interesting lives), the paperwork kept for non-BCRA issue ads was never part of a station's "political file", and the BCRA paperwork, which is nowhere mentioned in either the FCC's political or public file rules, is part of the political file. This distinction could have meant that stations that are not network affiliates located in the Top 50 markets would have been exempt from uploading candidate and BCRA paperwork until July 2014, but would still have to upload state and local issue ad paperwork immediately. Fortunately, the FCC appears to have sidestepped this problem by including in its FAQs a statement acknowledging that, because many stations simply lump all these "political" documents together, they can treat them all as part of the "political file" and only start uploading them in July 2014 (unless they are a Big 4 network affiliate in a Top 50 market).

6. Decide when to start uploading the station's pre-August 2 documents. The FCC is giving stations six months to upload their required pre-August 2 documents to the website. While the original Report and Order only gave stations five months from the rule's effective date to get this done, which would make final compliance due over the New Year's holiday, the FCC through its FAQs and its staff's advice is granting stations until February 2, 2013 to finish the upload process. Given the continuous "Recent Station History" feed on the FCC's website notifying the public of the most recent filings, however, stations might want to time their uploading activities to times when other filings are also taking place (i.e, October 1 EEO Public File Reports or October 10 Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists). That way, their recently filed documents are likely to be moved off the front page more quickly.

7. Stations airing pre- or post-filing license renewal announcements must update the language of the spots, while understanding that the public might not appreciate the change. The FCC has now updated the language of the pre- and post-filing license renewal announcements so that, on the one hand, it directs the public to find the station's license renewal application at www.fcc.gov, but, on the other hand, tells the public to come to the station's main studio or to the FCC to learn more about the license renewal process. The problem is that stations which filed their license renewal applications on June 1 or August 1 have been telling their viewing public for months that their applications are available at the main studio. This may lead to some disgruntled visitors to the studio, and stations will also need to think about exactly what they can offer members of the public that show up in their lobbies asking for "further information concerning the FCC's broadcast license renewal process." As a matter of good public relations, stations going through license renewal may want to consider keeping a hard copy of their license renewal application and the FCC's "The Public and Broadcasting" publication available to pacify members of the public who trek to their stations in response to the public notices. Of course, stations that have not transitioned all of the required elements of the public file into the FCC's system must still make the public file available upon request in the traditional manner, and stations will always have to make letters and emails from the public available at the studio even after the transition has ended.

Finally, broadcasters have long noted that visitors to the public file are few and far between. As a result, it has been all too easy for stations to become rusty on the procedures for making the file immediately available to the public, despite the many fines that have been assessed by the FCC for failure to do so. It is likely that visits will become even less frequent now that much of the file will be available online. However, stations must continue to prepare their staffs to receive the public and respond to questions about what is at the station and what is online. The upcoming months will likely be a learning process for all.


Online Public File Stay Denied - Online Public Inspection File Interface Demonstrations Scheduled for Monday and Tuesday

Paul A. Cicelski Lauren Lynch Flick

Posted July 27, 2012

By Lauren Lynch Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

Late this afternoon, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied the Stay requested by the National Association of Broadcasters that would have prevented the FCC's new online Public Inspection File posting requirement from becoming effective. As a result, television broadcast stations must be prepared to comply with this new requirement effective on August 2, 2012.

As we have previously reported here, the FCC has moved with great speed to create a new filing system to house television stations' online Public Inspection Files. Until now, broadcasters have had only a brief glimpse of the system they must begin using in less than one week.

This afternoon, the FCC announced that it will hold two public online "screensharing" sessions that will "provide high resolution views of the application screens and cover the material presented during the July 17, 2012 demonstration."

The sessions will occur at 9:00 am on Monday and 4:00 pm on Tuesday. Those interested in viewing the demonstrations must visit the FCC's site in advance and join the teleconference prior to its scheduled start time. While the online demonstration will provide the visuals, the audio portion will be done via the teleconference.

We have prepared an Advisory for clients to help them understand which specific items must be uploaded and what steps they should take to make a successful transition to the online Public Inspection File. The next week promises to be chaotic for TV broadcasters, but we hope the Advisory will help alleviate some of the regulatory pain.


Biennial Ownership Reports are due by April 2, 2012 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, and for Noncommercial Television Stations in Texas

Lauren Lynch Flick Christine A. Reilly

Posted March 1, 2012

By Lauren Lynch Flick and Christine A. Reilly

March 2012

The staggered deadlines for filing Biennial Ownership Reports by noncommercial radio and television stations remain in effect and are tied to each station's respective license renewal filing deadline.

Noncommercial radio stations licensed to communities in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, and television stations licensed to communities in Texas must electronically file their Biennial Ownership Reports by April 2, 2012, as the filing deadline of April 1 falls on a Sunday. Licensees must file using FCC Form 323-E, and must place the form as filed in their stations' public inspection files.

In 2009, the FCC issued a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comments on whether the Commission should adopt a single national filing deadline for all noncommercial radio and television broadcast stations like the one that the FCC has established for all commercial radio and television stations. That proceeding remains pending without decision. As a result, noncommercial radio and television stations continue to be required to file their biennial ownership reports every two years by the anniversary date of the station's license renewal application filing.

A PDF version of this article can be found at Biennial Ownership Reports are due by April 2, 2012 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, and for Noncommercial Television Stations in Texas