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FCC Commences Effort to Replace Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists

As promised at its last Open Meeting, the FCC has released a Notice of Inquiry focused on replacing television stations’ Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists with an online, standardized and searchable programming disclosure form. The effort seeks, depending on your point of view, to reform or to reinstate the failed FCC Form 355 that the FCC adopted in 2007, but which never went into use because of numerous legal challenges attacking the form’s onerous reporting requirements and overt programming mandates.

While the FCC claims that it is starting anew, as opposed to merely revising the old Form 355, it is not starting from scratch. Instead, the FCC punts on crafting a new form and asks whether the form that the Public Interest, Public Airwaves Coalition (“PIPAC”) has presented to the FCC will do the trick. That form would collect information regarding a television station’s programming in the following categories:

  • Local News: “programming that is locally produced and reports on issues about, or pertaining to, a licensee’s community of license”;
  • Local Civic/Governmental Affairs: “broadcasts of interviews with or statements by elected or appointed officials and relevant policy experts on issues of importance to the community, government meetings, legislative sessions, conferences featuring elected officials, and substantive discussions of civic issues of interest to local communities or groups”;
  • Local Electoral Affairs: “candidate-centered discourse focusing on the local, state and United States Congressional races for offices to be elected by a constituency within the licensee’s broadcast area”;
  • Closed Captioning and Video Description: whether programming reported on the form is captioned and what type of captioning is used, as well as ALL programming that is not captioned and the basis for its exemption; and
  • Emergency Accessibility Complaints: the number of complaints a station receives during the reporting period that its emergency programming is not accessible to those with disabilities.

The FCC asks for comment on a wide range of issues relating to these categories, such as whether broadcasters should report on individual segments within programs or only on entire programs, what constitutes a segment, and whether any additional categories should be added. The FCC also asks “what is an issue?,” which of course goes to the very heart of a licensee’s First Amendment discretion to determine what qualifies as suitable programming for its audience. It was the government’s concern about stepping on broadcasters’ First Amendment rights in the first place that led to the adoption of the more flexible Quarterly Issues/Programs List the FCC now seeks to replace.

As a replacement for the Quarterly Issues/Programs List, PIPAC is urging the FCC to randomly select dates during each quarter, and then require broadcasters to compile information regarding the programming aired in the above categories on those dates. As a practical matter, however, this would encourage broadcasters to focus their resources on small and numerous news stories over major investigative efforts, since a station that airs fewer but more complex and thoroughly investigated news stories runs the risk of getting no FCC credit if such stories don’t happen to fall on one of the “sample” days chosen by the FCC.

With respect to local election coverage, PIPAC proposes that broadcasters report all such programming aired during the lowest unit rate window (45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election). Alternatively, the FCC asks whether it should use a composite week or two actual weeks as the appropriate reporting period and how it should give notice to broadcasters of its random selections. One proposal — that the FCC notify broadcasters within a day or two of the date it randomly chooses — would have the FCC perpetually announcing dates for which broadcasters must preserve information about election programming aired.

Despite the FCC proposing that the online disclosure form be kept as part of a television station’s new online public inspection file, the PIPAC form requests a great deal of information that would be entirely duplicative of that public file. This includes having a link to the online public inspection file (in which the reporting form would be found in the first place), as well as links to the station’s most recent ownership report and children’s television programming report (each of which the FCC has proposed to include as part of the online public file), station contact information (which the FCC has already proposed be kept as part of the online public file), information about whether reported programs aired as part of a local marketing or other agreement or required sponsorship identification information (which information is already included in the online public file proposal), as well as such basic information as whether the station is commercial or noncommercial, the DMA in which it is located, and its network affiliation.

PIPAC created its form before the FCC released the proposal for a new online public file, and it is readily apparent that the PIPAC form is in many ways redundant with the FCC’s proposal. Oddly, however, the FCC seems to be considering the PIPAC form as a complement to an online public file, rather than as merely a duplicative addition to that file. As we noted earlier, there is a worrisome undercurrent in these proceedings that the FCC’s focus is on facilitating the efforts of distant policy advocates and academicians to hold a broadcaster “accountable” for its programming choices rather than on ensuring that stations serve the needs of their local audiences.

Organizations that have to be told online what a station’s affiliation or television market is, or whether it operates commercially or noncommercially, obviously are in a poor position to know the needs and interests of that station’s local community, much less whether the station is meeting those needs and interests. Instead, these proposed requirements seem aimed at merely providing a mechanism for pressuring stations to air more of a particular type of programming favored by the government or by a distant advocacy group. As Commissioner McDowell pointed out today in his concurring statement, it appears that stations’ local communities will benefit little from these proposed new requirements.