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FCC Conducts Demo of Its New Online Public Inspection File Interface

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By Lauren Lynch Flick and Paul A. Cicelski

As promised, yesterday morning the FCC conducted a public demonstration and webcast of the interface it has developed to host the online public inspection files for television broadcast stations. As we noted last week, the database is being developed in connection with the FCC’s recent Order requiring television broadcast stations to post their public inspection files online in a central, Commission-hosted database. These rules go into effect August 2, 2012. An archived version of the FCC’s webcast can be found here.

FCC Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake opened the demonstration by emphasizing that the FCC is focused on making it easier for broadcasters to use the system and for the public to access it than has been the case with the FCC’s legacy databases and paper-based public files. Greg Elin, the FCC’s Chief Data Officer, echoed Lake’s comments and demonstrated how the new interface brings together in one place items that have historically been stored in different locations on the FCC’s website, such as having the station’s contour map from the engineering database and its current authorization accessible from the main page for the station. The new system also replaces FCC Form numbers and abbreviations with plain English and will permit stations to upload documents in most major formats to make it more “user-friendly.” Elin also said that the FCC plans to use dedicated hardware for broadcasters to use to upload items so that surges in interest on the public side will not prevent broadcasters from managing their online file pages.

The FCC has been working on such issues for some time in connection with a planned Consolidated Licensing System (CLS) which it has demonstrated on a number of occasions over the past few years. The CLS is intended to consolidate and replace the FCC’s legacy filing databases, providing uniformity in electronic filing across all of the different Bureaus and types of authorizations. Media Bureau licensees are slated to be the first to use the new system when it’s ready. It appears that the FCC has integrated the public file interface with that on-going work, providing a uniform “look and feel” between the public file interface and what might ultimately become the sole online filing location on the Commission’s website.

It remains to be seen after watching the presentation the extent to which the interface will be ready to go by the FCC’s August 2 deadline. Lake and Elin each indicated that they expected that the interface would “evolve” over time as experience with its use is gained. Moreover, Elin stated that, while most issues for the August 2 launch have been ironed out for Mozilla and Firefox users, a number of applications associated with the interface do not yet function properly with Internet Explorer. It also appears that, although the database will be connected real-time to the FCC’s current Consolidated Database System (CDBS) allowing applications that are filed to be instantaneously included in the new database, the ability to effectively “search” the new database is still a way off. Finally, it was not clear how stations will be able to both (i) allow multiple employees, engineers and counsel to access the station’s page to upload and police the contents of the public file and (ii) monitor those various agents that might act on its behalf, especially if online electronic filing of applications is integrated with this interface.

Regarding the political file, which network affiliates in the top-50 markets must begin populating with newly created political documents beginning August 2, Elgin said that the FCC intends to establish a series of files and sub-files for stations to use based on data imported from the Federal Election Commission’s website. Specifically, the FCC’s database will include separate files for federal, state, and local election ad buys. Under those, FCC proposes to include sub-folders, such as one for each Congressional district, then further sub-folders for each candidate as well as for non-candidate specific issue ads. Stations will be given tools that will allow them to retain some flexibility when designing their individual online political files, but how much customization the new database will allow remains to be seen. The FCC will support file-sharing programs that can allow multiple employees at a station to upload information about ad buys, but stations will still have to address the issues regarding user identification noted above.

Given the FCC’s efforts to make the interface useable in a variety of ways, TV stations would benefit from the opportunity to test the system, to see which file formats work best for them, to learn and implement file sharing programs, and to set up internal controls for employee access to the station’s page. Unfortunately, while Elgin did indicate that the system would be up and running by August 2, he was unable to provide a date specific regarding when the database will be available for such testing. Remembering the difficulties encountered with the roll out of the new commercial ownership report, early testing will likely be key to the success of the new database.

Historically, each time the FCC has introduced an electronic filing form to replace a paper-based form, it has allowed broadcasters a significant transition time period to acclimate to the new form. Clearly, such a timeframe has not been contemplated here so far. Therefore, at a minimum, it would be appropriate if the FCC withheld all public inspection file enforcement activity against television stations until such a time as it is certain that the new interface is functioning smoothly and broadcasters have had an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the new system.

Of course, there is the issue of the NAB’s pending emergency request with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to stay the August 2 effective date of the rules, which could have the same effect. Check back frequently for updates as there is sure to be plenty of additional news prior to August 2.