Earlier today, the FCC announced in the Federal Register that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has approved the FCC’s new rules requiring television stations to replace the public files that they maintain at their studios with electronic files that will be hosted online by the FCC. As a result of today’s announcement, the online file rules become effective on August 2, 2012. Included among the documents that must be made available online are stations’ ad sales records for political ads–a requirement widely speculated to be a response to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case.
As I reported recently, what this means is that all full-power and Class A television stations will be required to upload any newly created public file documents to a not-yet-disclosed database managed by the FCC starting August 2. Stations will have until January 3, 2013, to post their current public file documents online, with the exception of letters and emails from the public which are not required to be uploaded.
With respect to political file documents, affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox located in the top-50 television markets will have to begin uploading all newly created political file documents to the FCC’s database on August 2, 2012. The political file requirement will be phased in so that all other television stations must comply with the political file uploading requirement by July 1, 2014. Until July 1, 2014, stations not in the top-50 markets and all stations not affiliated with the top-four networks, regardless of the size of the market they serve, are exempt from the requirement. The FCC has stated that it plans to issue a Public Notice no later than July 1, 2013 seeking comments on the impact that the posting requirement has had on television stations to that point and to evaluate the effectiveness of the process. Items placed in a station’s political file prior to August 2 will not have to be posted online.
Whether any of these dates will hold remains to be seen.
First, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has already filed a Petition for Review of the rules in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, even though the deadline to do so is not until July 10. The NAB, along with 46 State Broadcasters Associations and others, had opposed the rules when the FCC proposed them, stating that they were riddled with omissions, greatly underestimated the burden on television stations, and were otherwise duplicative of reporting required by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). However, the FCC and the OMB rejected these claims, seemingly turning a blind eye to the voluminous record in the proceeding indicating that the proposed rules will increase burdens on television stations while merely duplicating records already required to be filed with the FEC. As a result, the NAB’s court challenge argues that the FCC’s action in adopting the rules “infringes on . . . First Amendment free-speech rights, exceeds statutory authority, and is arbitrary and capricious.” In addition, the NAB filed a motion for stay with the FCC earlier today asking the Commission to delay implementation of the rules until the court has had an opportunity to review the NAB’s Petition for Review.
Second, and of more practical concern, the FCC will now have to scramble to ready its online filing database and educate the public in its use before the August 2 effective date rolls around. The FCC has not yet announced when the database will be available for stations to “test” the system in advance of the rules going into effect as it claimed it would do when it adopted the new rules. The Commission did announce today that it will soon schedule user testing and educational webinars for the online public file to ensure that the uploading of materials by broadcasters can be done “smoothly and efficiently”.
Many will remember the chaos that occurred in 2009 and 2010 as a result of the FCC’s decision to adopt a new electronic Ownership Report filing requirement that increased both the amount of data to be collected and the number of reports to be submitted, but promised to mitigate the increased burden by making the data easy to copy into multiple filings. Repeatedly, the FCC’s system ground to a halt under the heavy load, precluding filers from working with the data they had painstakingly entered. As a result, the filing deadline had to be repeatedly extended until the bugs were worked out. Glitches such as this are inevitable with an untested system, which makes one wonder how the FCC believes it can make it all work before the August 2 deadline. It would be unfortunate if the combination of the Citizens United ruling and the impending November 6 election drove the FCC to once again implement a filing database that is not ready for prime time, forcing broadcasters to serve as beta testers.
Needless to say, given the NAB’s Petition at the court, the other likely court and FCC challenges to the rules, and the hurdles the FCC faces in implementing the online database, the odds are not high that stations will be fully uploaded by the August 2, 2012 deadline. Unfortunately, though, television stations can’t afford to wager on the speed with which the FCC will move in this case. Stations will therefore need to start moving now to ensure they are ready to post their files by August 2, 2012, and should remain alert to any FCC announcements informing them exactly how the new filing system will work.