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Comment Deadlines Set in FCC’s Effort to Expand TV Public Inspection File Obligations

The FCC has announced the comment and reply comment deadlines for its recently-announced Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM), which proposes to replace nearly all of a television station’s paper public inspection file with a more expansive online file hosted by the FCC. Comments are due at the FCC by December 22, 2011, with Reply Comments due by January 6, 2012. In addition, the public can also submit comments to the Office of Management and Budget regarding the proposal’s impact under the Paperwork Reduction Act by January 23, 2012.

This is an important proceeding as it involves far more than simply moving public files online. The goal of this proceeding, and the separate proceeding also commenced recently to replace television station Quarterly Issues Programs Lists with a new form (which we discussed here) is to create fully searchable databases of uniform information about broadcast stations and their programming that researchers, advocates and policy makers can cite in support of a particular regulatory theory, proposal, or complaint. Beyond the burden on TV stations in populating this database, broadcasters are justifiably leery of the long term impact on licensee discretion.

Historically, there has been a strong correlation between the FCC gathering information on the amount of programming being aired of a particular type, and demanding that more (or sometimes less) of it be aired in the future. Based upon this history, broadcasters can be forgiven if they feel a First Amendment chill down their collective spine when the FCC seeks more information about their programming decisions, and worse yet, declares that such information should be instantly available to anyone with an Internet connection.

As we have seen in the indecency context where the FCC has been buried by email complaints, some against stations that never actually aired the program at issue but which were incorrectly reported on the Internet as having aired it, making station information available by Internet risks drowning out the voices of local viewers and listeners with the shrill cries of distant agitators.

More to the point, given the power of the FCC over broadcasters’ license renewals, and the stress and expense of defending against even baseless complaints at the FCC, the path of least resistance for a broadcaster is to succumb to the pressure and program in a way that makes the government happy. The government may try to exert this pressure subtly (usually not), but like water passing over a stone, it inexorably wears the broadcaster down. The details of the FNPRM provide an indication of how much regulatory water the FCC is proposing to send broadcasters’ way.

In adopting these proposals as mere disclosure requirements, the FCC can implicitly denote what it considers to be a suspect program or practice without having to adopt a rule specifically prohibiting that particular program/practice and facing judicial scrutiny of the prohibition. Taken together, the online public file and program reporting proposals appear to be an exercise in “regulation by raised eyebrow,” with the modern twist of enlisting the Internet community to crowdsource station monitoring and complaints to ensure adequate pressure on broadcasters to get with the program.

Broadcasters as a whole recognize, and are dedicated to, meeting the needs of their local community. The FNPRM’s suggestion that they should also meet the needs of the global Internet community merely distracts from that fundamental mission. The reason public inspection files are so rarely visited by the public is that local viewers and listeners are already very knowledgeable about their local stations’ service to their community. All they have to do is turn on their TV or radio to find out more. They have traditionally shown little need for, or interest in, the public file.

Contributing to that disinterest is the anachronistic nature of the file itself. For example, what is the utility of a contour map to the average viewer/listener when TV stations are carried throughout the DMA by cable, satellite, translators and boosters, and radio stations are streamed throughout their market and beyond? While a good case could be made for scaling back the public file rule, the FNPRM’s effort to sprint in the opposite direction is difficult to fathom, particularly given how strained station resources already are in the current economy.

All television broadcasters (and frankly, radio broadcasters with an eye to the future) should carefully consider how the changes proposed in the FNPRM would affect their ability to function and serve their communities, and ensure that they let the FCC know just what that impact would be.