As I reported last week, the FCC’s new rules requiring television stations to replace the public files they maintain at their studios with electronic files to be hosted online by the FCC are currently set to become effective on August 2, 2012. Since that report, a lot of events have occurred, and the focus of this proceeding has officially shifted from the FCC to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
To no one’s surprise, the FCC earlier today issued an Order denying the National Association of Broadcaster’s (NAB) Petition for Stay of the FCC’s new online public inspection file rules. In its Order, the FCC states it is denying the NAB’s request because the NAB was unable to satisfy any of the four factors factors supporting grant of a stay. According to the FCC, the NAB failed to show (1) that the new rules would cause irreparable injury; (2) that the NAB is likely to prevail on the merits in its appeal; (3) that other interested parties will not be harmed if a stay is granted; and (4) that a stay would serve the public interest. Essentially, the FCC regurgitated its prior findings in deciding to move full speed ahead with the new rules. However, TV broadcasters have been seeking relief from the new rules, which will, without question, increase compliance burdens on TV stations while needlessly duplicating records already required to be maintained online by the Federal Election Commission.
As a practical matter however, today’s action by the FCC is more of a procedural hurdle that had to be cleared by broadcasters on their way to court rather than a true substantive analysis of the merits of the court appeal. As I reported last month, the NAB has already filed a Petition for Review asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to vacate the FCC’s action “on the grounds that it is arbitrary, capricious, in excess of the Commission’s statutory authority, inconsistent with the First Amendment, and otherwise not in accordance with law.” Also, earlier this week, in anticipation of today’s denial by the FCC, the NAB filed a separate Emergency Motion with the court asking the court to hold the new rules in abeyance. The NAB is asking the court to stay the August 2 effective date of the rules until the court has had an opportunity to consider the NAB’s Petition for Review.
According to the NAB’s request for a stay, the FCC has “engaged in arbitrary and capricious decisionmaking by disregarding the competitive harm that is likely to result from the Order and departing from the provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA.)” The NAB also states that its “members will suffer irreparable harm absent a stay because the Order compels television stations to post the prices for specific advertisements to a public website immediately after the sales occur.” The NAB’s request also noted that the new rules “will place NAB’s members at a distinct disadvantage to their non-broadcast competitors, who will not be required to post rate information on the Internet.”
While all of this is going on, the FCC has announced that it will be conducting a public demonstration of its proposed online public inspection file database next Tuesday, July 17, 2012, at 10:00 a.m., only two weeks or so prior to the date the new rules are scheduled to go into effect. Those of you interested in participating online can do so by logging in to www.fcc.gov/live. I will be posting a follow-up piece summarizing next week’s demonstration.
As the levels of activity on multiple fronts indicate, this proceeding is far from over. To be sure, obtaining a court stay is not an easy task. That said, this is the rare case where (despite the FCC’s contrary ruling), the irreparable harm to broadcasters is apparent, and the case on the merits is strong. While the court ponders the stay request, TV broadcasters need to be preparing themselves for the the process of uploading their public inspection files by the August 2 deadline. Whether or not a last-minute stay is granted, the next two weeks will be a white-knuckle ride for TV broadcasters.