On Thursday, the much anticipated Online Public Inspection File for television stations launched more or less successfully. To complete the task in the short time given them, the FCC staff put forth an Olympic effect, and while they were subject to some point deductions for a few stumbles in the regulatory gymnastics involved, they largely “stuck the dismount” as the system went live.
To its credit, the FCC clearly listened to the many voicemails and emails sent to FCC staff, as well as the comments and questions raised during the FCC’s online demonstrations prior to launch. Some potentially nasty pitfalls for stations were ironed out via the FAQs, and the system will hopefully continue to be refined in the weeks and months ahead.
In the meantime, here is what stations need to do now that the system is operational:
1. Be sure you can log in. The FCC’s staff reports that there were a considerable number of stations that had lost or forgotten their FRN (Federal Registration Number) and password or otherwise had trouble with the log in process. The FRN has become an all-access pass to a station’s records with the FCC and anyone who has it can file applications on the station’s behalf in any number of FCC filing systems. The potential for mischief that the FRN and password presents is worthy of another blog post, but for now, know that stations that have used multiple FRNs and passwords may find it hard to get access to their online public inspection files and need the staff’s assistance in straightening the problem out.
2. Input your station address. On the Authorizations page and again on the Letters and Emails From the Public page, stations need to fill in the station’s main studio address, telephone number and email contact information. Stations should also verify that their closed captioning contact is listed correctly.
3. Cross-reference the online public file on the station’s home page. Stations that have websites must include a link on their home page to their online public inspection file and provide the public with contact information for a station employee that can assist the disabled in accessing the public file.
4. Remove out of date documents automatically uploaded by the FCC. Since the FCC simply linked its CDBS public view to the new online public files, there may be numerous items that can safely be discarded as no longer relevant. The FCC did not do this automatically because the retention periods for the various categories of documents that seem straightforward at first blush actually vary considerably depending on a station’s individual circumstances. The FCC has given stations enough rope to hang themselves here, so care should be taken before documents are removed. Nevertheless, for most stations, a lot of material is being put out there that need not be.
5. Check the station’s Section 73.1212(e) and BCRA (Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act) folders. Chances are good that confusion has surrounded your station’s 73.1212(e) folder for years, with the result that many stations’ Section 73.1212(e) folders are empty. Section 73.1212(e) is the rule requiring stations to maintain a list of the executive officers of organizations that buy time to discuss political matters or controversial issues of public importance, and to place that list in the public inspection file. Most stations have treated these types of spots no differently than they do spots purchased by candidates for elective office. As a result, often when we visit a station’s public file, we find neatly labeled folders for each candidate and each issue in the same section of the file cabinet and an empty folder labeled “Section 73.1212(e) Sponsorship Identification” at the very end of the drawer. When BCRA was implemented (requiring stations to maintain more detailed information about third-party political and issue ad buys involving controversial national issues), stations simply labeled more folders and added the BCRA materials to the political file right next to the materials on candidate ads. In addition, many stations found it difficult to distinguish between controversial national issues versus controversial state or local issues, and simply collected and maintained the same disclosure information for all ads that seemed “political” in nature, even if placing that information in the file was not actually required.
Technically (and here’s where we separate the real communications lawyers from people who have interesting lives), the paperwork kept for non-BCRA issue ads was never part of a station’s “political file”, and the BCRA paperwork, which is nowhere mentioned in either the FCC’s political or public file rules, is part of the political file. This distinction could have meant that stations that are not network affiliates located in the Top 50 markets would have been exempt from uploading candidate and BCRA paperwork until July 2014, but would still have to upload state and local issue ad paperwork immediately. Fortunately, the FCC appears to have sidestepped this problem by including in its FAQs a statement acknowledging that, because many stations simply lump all these “political” documents together, they can treat them all as part of the “political file” and only start uploading them in July 2014 (unless they are a Big 4 network affiliate in a Top 50 market).
6. Decide when to start uploading the station’s pre-August 2 documents. The FCC is giving stations six months to upload their required pre-August 2 documents to the website. While the original Report and Order only gave stations five months from the rule’s effective date to get this done, which would make final compliance due over the New Year’s holiday, the FCC through its FAQs and its staff’s advice is granting stations until February 2, 2013 to finish the upload process. Given the continuous “Recent Station History” feed on the FCC’s website notifying the public of the most recent filings, however, stations might want to time their uploading activities to times when other filings are also taking place (i.e, October 1 EEO Public File Reports or October 10 Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists). That way, their recently filed documents are likely to be moved off the front page more quickly.
7. Stations airing pre- or post-filing license renewal announcements must update the language of the spots, while understanding that the public might not appreciate the change. The FCC has now updated the language of the pre- and post-filing license renewal announcements so that, on the one hand, it directs the public to find the station’s license renewal application at www.fcc.gov, but, on the other hand, tells the public to come to the station’s main studio or to the FCC to learn more about the license renewal process. The problem is that stations which filed their license renewal applications on June 1 or August 1 have been telling their viewing public for months that their applications are available at the main studio. This may lead to some disgruntled visitors to the studio, and stations will also need to think about exactly what they can offer members of the public that show up in their lobbies asking for “further information concerning the FCC’s broadcast license renewal process.” As a matter of good public relations, stations going through license renewal may want to consider keeping a hard copy of their license renewal application and the FCC’s “The Public and Broadcasting” publication available to pacify members of the public who trek to their stations in response to the public notices. Of course, stations that have not transitioned all of the required elements of the public file into the FCC’s system must still make the public file available upon request in the traditional manner, and stations will always have to make letters and emails from the public available at the studio even after the transition has ended.
Finally, broadcasters have long noted that visitors to the public file are few and far between. As a result, it has been all too easy for stations to become rusty on the procedures for making the file immediately available to the public, despite the many fines that have been assessed by the FCC for failure to do so. It is likely that visits will become even less frequent now that much of the file will be available online. However, stations must continue to prepare their staffs to receive the public and respond to questions about what is at the station and what is online. The upcoming months will likely be a learning process for all.