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FCC’s Motive for Demanding Copies of TV Station Public Files Confirmed

Late last month I wrote about a strange occurrence at a number of TV stations that were visited by FCC inspectors demanding that the station make a copy of its entire public inspection file in 24-48 hours and provide that copy to the FCC.

I commented at the time that this highly unusual event was more likely connected to the FCC’s pending proceeding to move the public inspection file online than to any enforcement action, noting that “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.” It therefore seemed likely that the FCC was not so much interested in the substance of each station’s public file as in determining the sheer size of those files. Regardless, stations with the misfortune of being on the receiving end of these requests had to absorb the overtime and copying costs involved to comply.

Since that time, the FCC has scheduled a vote at its April 27 meeting to require that the public file, including the political file portion of it, be posted online. The timing of the planned vote is not a good sign for broadcasters, as it is a long-standing FCC tradition to schedule votes on orders that are favorable to broadcasters so that they can be released just before the NAB Show, ensuring that FCC commissioners speaking at the NAB Show will receive a warm reception. Conversely, FCC orders that broadcasters are not going to be happy about tend to be delayed until after the NAB Show concludes. With the FCC’s scheduled vote coming the week after the NAB Show, it should surprise no one that the FCC appears ready to adopt an order requiring that public files (including the political file) be moved online.

On the good news side, the FCC appears to be dropping its proposals to require that certain inter-station agreements and sponsorship identification lists be added to the file, either because broadcasters’ complaints about those proposals were heard, or because the FCC saw them as unnecessary judicial baggage in an order that it would like to see implemented quickly.

Returning, however, to the mystery of why the FCC was demanding copies of stations’ public files, the last document placed in the FCC’s record in the online public file proceeding this past Friday (just before the holiday weekend) is illuminating. It is a one-page “Submission for the Record” from the Media Bureau noting that “[t]he Commission requested a copy of the public file from all broadcast stations in the Baltimore DMA in March of 2012, received the documents either on paper or electronically, and subsequently reviewed each file, counting the total number of pages in the following categories….” The Submission then notes the total number of pages in each file (with the award for the largest file going to WJZ-TV, at 8,222 pages), and breaks out the number of pages in the categories of Political File, letters/emails from the public, documents currently available online at the FCC, and documents the FCC found extraneous to the file. This certainly appears to confirm that the FCC’s goal in demanding that stations rapidly provide a copy of their entire public file was merely to determine the quantity, and not the quality, of those files. By placing that information in the public record, the FCC can now rely on it in its decision to implement an online public file requirement (although how it supports that result is still unclear).

While one can question the burden placed on individual stations merely to determine the number of pages in a public inspection file (which is information that is already in the record, having been submitted in numerous broadcasters’ comments), once that information has been gathered, it is fair for the FCC to make use of it by placing it in the record. What is curious, however, is the effort the FCC appears to have expended to do so as quietly as possible. In addition to it being dropped into the record right before the holiday weekend, the Submission itself is an unusual document. It is not on letterhead, it is not dated, and it is not signed. If it were not for the fact that the FCC’s filing system indicates it was submitted by the Media Bureau, you might well wonder where it came from. There may, however, be a reason for this.

When the FCC moved its public comment system online, the FCC and communications lawyers quickly found that the number of one-page submissions from the public stating a position but providing no supporting rationale exploded exponentially. The result was that it became difficult to locate the more substantive comments filed in a proceeding, as they were lost among hundreds or thousands of short “me too” submissions. To the FCC’s eternal credit, it modified its comment search filter so that you can exclude “Brief Comments” from your search, allowing you to focus on the more substantial comments filed. Parties actively following a proceeding therefore tend to use this option and exclude “Brief Comments” when checking the record.

By eliminating all extraneous information, the FCC was able to keep its Submission down to one page in length, and as it turns out, the system’s definition of a Brief Comment is one that is one page long, meaning that those using the search filter will not see it. That may well be nothing more than a coincidence, but it would at least explain the unusually brief and cryptic nature of the FCC’s Submission. But if that is the case, we have just traded one mystery for another–having gone to such lengths to gather this information, why is the FCC being so shy about having found it?