Published on:

The FCC’s “Stopwatch” Proposal to Evaluate Station Program Content

Despite spring-like weather in Washington this winter, broadcasters, with good reason, have been busy filing frosty comments in response to the FCC’s Notice of Inquiry (NOI) regarding “Standardizing Program Reporting Requirements for Broadcast Licensees.”

Free Press and others are urging the FCC to require television stations to complete and publicly file a “Sample Form” setting forth the number of minutes that a station devoted, during a composite week period, to the broadcast of certain categories of FCC-selected programming. The proposed form (or some version of it) would take the place of the Quarterly Issues/Programs List requirement that was adopted by the Commission nearly thirty years ago after an exhaustive review of many of the same issues that caused the FCC in 2007 to adopt FCC Form 355 (“Standardized Television Disclosure Form”), which the Commission abandoned last year on its own motion.

The 46 State Broadcasters Associations (represented by our firm), three other State Broadcasters Associations, the National Association of Broadcasters, and a coalition of network television station owners, among others, filed comments alerting the FCC that its proposals to adopt new and detailed program reporting requirements raise serious questions about the Commission’s authority to do so under the First Amendment. The 46 State Associations noted that “substitut[ing] a chiefly quantity of programming measure for public service performance, which is the focus of Free Press’ Sample Form, would, in the State Associations’ view, inappropriately, (i) elevate form (quantity of minutes) over substance (treatment of specific issues), (ii) place other undue burdens on stations, and (iii) intertwine the government for years to come in the journalistic news judgments of television broadcast stations throughout the country.”

According to the State Associations and the NAB, the FCC’s failure to address the clear constitutional questions raised is peculiar in light of First Amendment case law. They are referring to the Commission’s proposed adoption of a quantity of programming approach to measure station performance, which would introduce the same type of “raised eyebrow” regulatory dynamic that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Lutheran Church found unlawfully pressured stations to hire based on race. According to that same court in the more recent MD/DC/DE Broadcasters case, the FCC has “a long history of employing…a variety of sub silentio pressures and ‘raised eyebrow’ regulation of program content…as means for communicating official pressures to the licensee.” In Lutheran Church, the court concluded that “[n]o rational firm–particularly one holding a government-issued license–welcomes a government audit.” The court also concluded that no rational broadcast station licensee would welcome having to expend its resources, and suffer any attendant application processing delays in having to justify their actions to the FCC, regardless of whether in response to a petition to deny an application, a complaint, or other objection filed by a third party.

The network television station owners also pressed the First Amendment issue by pointing out that it is well established that the First Amendment precludes the FCC from requiring the broadcast of particular amounts and types of programming. The network owners also noted that few broadcasters, confronted with a Commission form asking them to list all of their programming related to certain content categories, will not feel pressure to skew their editorial judgments in a conforming manner.

These comments reveal the difficult position in which the FCC places itself when it attempts to craft rules that relate to specific programming content. Having launched itself down that path, the question becomes whether the Commission will attempt to face these issues and address them in any resulting rule, or merely downplay them, requiring an appeals court to address them at a later date. Only after we know the answer to that question will we know whether the term “stopwatch review” refers to a new regime of FCC content regulation, or is merely a reference to how long it takes a court to find that such rules can’t coexist with the First Amendment.