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FCC Provides a Little Online Public File Relief for “Some” TV Stations

Late this afternoon, the FCC released a short Report and Order allowing a limited set of television stations to forego uploading a portion of their paper public inspection files to the FCC’s online system by the upcoming Monday, February 4 deadline.

As we previously reported, under FCC rules adopted last year, all full power and Class A television stations had to begin using an online public inspection file hosted on the FCC’s website beginning August 2, 2012. In order to comply with the new rules, stations have been required to make sure that all public inspection file documents created beginning on August 2, 2012 have been promptly uploaded to the FCC’s online database, except for emails and letters from the public and the political files for stations not affiliated with the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox networks in the top 50 markets. Documents that were already in stations’ public inspection files prior to August 2, 2012 must be uploaded to the new online public file by Monday’s deadline.

Under the FCC’s public file rule, some categories of documents must remain in the public file until final action has been taken on the station’s next license renewal application. Most notable among these documents are all of the station’s quarterly filings, such as Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists, Children’s Television Programming Reports on Form 398, Certifications of Compliance with Commercial Limits in Children’s Programming, and Certifications of Continuing Class A Eligibility. Where action on a station’s license renewal application is delayed, many years’ worth of documents can pile up in the station’s public inspection file waiting for the license renewal grant.

One station in this situation petitioned the FCC to allow it to continue to retain the Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists covering quarters prior to the start of its current eight year license term at the station’s main studio, rather than having to upload the voluminous documents to the online public file. The FCC today granted this request and provided the same relief to all other “similarly situated” stations.

Specifically, a station can forego uploading its “prior term” Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists to the FCC’s website if (1) the station’s license renewal application was not challenged; (2) action on the station’s license renewal application is delayed for an enforcement reason other than one relating to issue-responsive programming and the related recordkeeping requirements; and (3) the station retains the prior term Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists at the station’s main studio public file until final action on the station’s license renewal application. The station must still upload the Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists for its current license term to the online public file.

The FCC stated that this relief was warranted in part because of the burden of uploading these documents. The FCC also cited its policy that stations with a pending license renewal application must still file their next license renewal application when normally due. The FCC felt that the online availability of a station’s Quarterly Issues/ Programs Lists from the prior license term could confuse the public regarding what they should review and comment on with regard to the station’s performance during the current license term.

What is odd, however, is that this rationale applies equally to other quarterly filings mentioned above that the FCC is still requiring be uploaded to the online public file. As a result, stations should keep in mind that the Order is very limited in scope, and the amount of materials subject to the uploading exemption is only a portion of the documents relating to the prior license term.

Still, to the extent the FCC has provided at least some relief with regard to uploading Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists, stations with a license renewal application from their preceding eight year license term still pending should take the time to determine whether they qualify for this relief.