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Online or Out of Line? FCC Requests Copies of Entire Public Files

As the FCC’s proceeding to require television stations to place their public inspection files (including their political files) online heats up, life is becoming strange for a number of television stations around the country. In a move presumably connected with the online public file proceeding, FCC inspectors have appeared at television stations in several markets and demanded that the stations provide them with a complete copy of their entire public inspection files within 48 hours or less. Given that most public files are measured in yards, not feet, of paper, there are a lot of broadcast employees burning the midnight oil trying to comply.

But why such a strange and burdensome request? If the FCC wanted to merely determine whether a station’s file is complete, it can just look at the original file during its visit to the station–it doesn’t need its own copy. Besides, the fact that a document is missing from the duplicates provided to the FCC would be weak evidence that the station’s actual file is defective, since it would hardly be surprising if a few documents failed to get copied in this highly rushed process.

Alternatively, if the FCC were doing an in-depth audit of a specific portion of the file (for example, the EEO section) which is difficult to thoroughly review while at the station, FCC personnel could request copies of just that portion of the file. In asking for a copy of the entire file, it appears that the FCC is not particularly interested in the substance of those copies, but in how quickly the station can produce them (particularly since there appears to be no massive emergency file review going on at the FCC actually requiring rapid access to copies of the entire file).

While this would seem bizarre any place outside of Washington (well, it’s bizarre here too, but you get used to that after a while), the FCC has been on the receiving end of numerous comments and declarations from broadcasters noting how large the public inspection file has become, and how burdensome and time-consuming it would be to require stations to scan the entire contents of it for the sake of posting it online. Broadcasters have argued that this burden is hard to justify given that very few members of their local communities have ever expressed the slightest interest in seeing the public file, online or otherwise.

While scanning and posting the content of a public file online will obviously be far more time consuming than just making copies of it, these recent events may suggest that the FCC considers them sufficiently analogous to attempt to prove a point–that scanning every document in a public file is not as time-consuming as many broadcasters have claimed, and is therefore not a fatal flaw in the online file proposal, either from a public interest or Paperwork Reduction Act perspective. Or, the Commission may think broadcasters are bluffing about the size of their public files, and want to prove that they are really not as extensive as claimed. Apparently, the FCC has not realized just how many station renewal applications remain pending for years after filing due to indecency and other complaints, requiring stations to maintain data in their files even longer than usual.

Unfortunately, the affected broadcasters are now caught in the middle, and face a conundrum: attempt to move heaven and earth in an effort to meet the FCC’s seemingly arbitrary deadline, or risk being accused by the FCC of failing to provide the requested information by the deadline set by the FCC (or both, for the many stations that pull out all stops and still have no hope of meeting the FCC’s stated deadline). Particularly ironic of course is that stations that manage to pull it off in anything close to that time frame may well have that fact presented to them as the very reason why it is not unduly burdensome to have them repeat the process when posting their file online.

As a broadcaster, the obvious thing to do when the FCC may be coming to your door is to make sure that your public inspection file is complete and up to date. However, if the actual point of this exercise is not to look at the substance of what stations produce, but at how fast they can produce it, then these unfortunate stations have been tasked with the regulatory equivalent of a snipe hunt.