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FCC Proposal for Online Public Files for TV Moves to the Front Burner

At its Open Meeting this morning, the Federal Communications Commission released its latest proposal to require commercial and noncommercial television broadcasters to maintain their public inspection files online. The FCC had taken incremental steps in this direction over the years by first permitting and encouraging stations to maintain their public files online, and then requiring that certain content of the public file, such as annual EEO public file reports and the progress reports that broadcasters filed during the DTV transition, also be posted on stations’ websites.

However, most television broadcasters will recall that in 2007 the FCC suddenly upped the stakes considerably when it undertook a review of the public interest obligations applicable to television broadcasters as they transitioned to digital television. The results of that review, known as “Enhanced Disclosures”, specifically mandated that television broadcasters complete a long and excruciatingly detailed new form, FCC Form 355, reporting on their programming content quarterly, and maintain almost the entirety of their public file in an online format.

While these requirements were adopted by the FCC in 2007, they were never actually implemented. Broadcasters petitioned the FCC to reconsider its order due to the excessive burden the new requirements placed on stations, and advised the government’s Office of Management and Budget, which must approve any new paperwork requirements before they go into effect, of the burden the new rules would impose.

This summer, the FCC released a report entitled “The Information Needs of Communities.” It concluded that the Form 355 was “overly bureaucratic and cumbersome.” Consistent with that conclusion, the FCC today abandoned the Form 355, but stated that it is internally circulating a Notice of Inquiry that will examine what manner of disclosures television broadcasters should instead make.

While eliminating the Form 355, the FCC did not give up on its goal of an online public inspection file. In fact, today’s proposal to implement an online public file suggests the inclusion of documents that the FCC had exempted in its 2007 order, as well as documents that stations have never previously had to place in their public file at all. Those items which are now apparently fair game include shared services agreements and a station’s political file. In addition, the FCC is proposing that stations be required to post information online regarding all of their on-air sponsorship announcements.

Both the political file and sponsorship identification proposals pose a potentially enormous burden for TV stations. How big that burden will be should become clearer when the FCC releases the actual text of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Commissioner McDowell specifically asked for comment on the burden imposed by requiring that stations’ political files be posted online and continuously updated. During today’s Open Meeting, he pointedly noted that the FCC had decided to exempt the political file from online posting in 2007 because the burden outweighed the public interest benefit.

In that regard, the FCC did acknowledge some of the concerns broadcasters had earlier raised regarding the burden of online posting. For example, the FCC is proposing that, rather than requiring broadcasters to maintain their own websites for posting their public file information, the FCC create its own hosting site for that purpose.

We will certainly have more to say about this proceeding once the FCC releases the text of its proposals and inquiries. Commissioner McDowell made an additional point at the Open Meeting which certainly will resonate with broadcasters, and that is whether the burdens these new procedures would involve will result in any true benefit to the local communities the stations serve. Much was said today in support of the item based on a desire to drive additional broadband adoption, and to aid academics and advocacy groups in monitoring media. However, the purpose of the public inspection file has always been to ensure that a station’s local community has easy access to the information necessary to assess the station’s performance, particularly at license renewal time. It will be hard to justify the additional burden on TV stations if the primary “benefit” of an online file goes to academicians and distant advocacy groups rather than to a station’s local audience. Implicit in that approach is a “one size fits all” assumption about what types of programming meet the needs of each and every local community.

This is obviously a very important proceeding for all broadcasters, since the FCC has made clear that once online public files are implemented for TV, radio is likely next. All broadcasters will therefore want to get involved in this issue once the FCC announces the deadlines for filing comments.