Friday will see the launch of the FCC’s new online public inspection file system, called, not surprisingly, the Online Public Inspection File (“OPIF”). With stations moving to a “next gen” public inspection file, Pillsbury today released its next gen Public Inspection File Advisory. Like earlier editions have done since the creation of the public inspection file requirement, this latest edition provides in-depth information on the content of the file for both commercial and noncommercial stations, whether they are already online, moving online this Friday, or not moving online until 2018.
As discussed here previously, the OPIF replaces the Broadcast Public Inspection File (“BPIF”) for full power and Class A TV stations, and becomes mandatory on June 24th for not just those stations, but for:
- Commercial broadcast radio stations that are located in the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets with five or more full time employees (“First Wave stations”)
- DBS providers
- SDARS licensees
- Cable systems with 1,000 or more subscribers.
As it did with the predecessor BPIF, the FCC took some commonsense steps to simplify the transition to an online file and avoid unnecessary effort for stations going forward. Specifically, the FCC will automatically upload to a station’s online public inspection file most applications and reports that are electronically filed with the FCC.
However, stations should not be complacent that the FCC is assuming responsibility for the public file being complete. Stations must still be knowledgeable about which items actually belong in the public inspection file and for how long. Not all items required to be filed with the FCC electronically have to be kept in the public file, and many items that are not filed electronically with the FCC do have to be kept in the public inspection file. Stations must know the difference. In addition, stations must know where in the file to upload required items. For example, most commercial stations will have a Political File that covers candidate airtime purchases, and a Section 73.1212 Sponsorship Identification File addressing issue ads. As the FCC itself has acknowledged, however, many stations have tended to combine those two categories, placing both in their Political File folder.
Knowing how and where these various documents should be uploaded is important for ensuring a rule-compliant file that can withstand worldwide scrutiny on the Internet. Equally important, however, is knowing when a document should be removed from the public file. The OPIF does not address this need, and documents that are past their retention period must be manually removed by the licensee.
Of course, the transition to any new online system requires users to become familiar with that system’s architecture and operation as well. To that end, the FCC recently hosted a live demonstration of the OPIF. That demonstration revealed that First Wave stations must log into their new online public inspection file on June 24th and actively take steps to switch the file “on” so that the public can access the content.
It turns out that accomplishing this involves several steps. First, the licensee must sign into the system using its Federal Registration Number (“FRN”) and password, revealing the Owner Dashboard. The Owner Dashboard displays the Passcode that the system has assigned to each of that owner’s stations. This allows an owner of multiple stations to give the Passcode to employees responsible for maintaining one station’s public file without having to give up the overall FRN or the Passcodes to its other stations’ public files associated with that FRN. After this has been accomplished, the licensee will need to log out of the Owner Dashboard and then log back into the system using the “Entity ID”, which in the case of a broadcast station is the Facility Identification Number for the station and the Passcode acquired in the first step.
At this point, a banner will be visible at the top of the public file screen that reads “[Call Sign] is now ready for keeping public inspection files online. [Call Sign] profile is currently turned On/Off for public view.” The last step that needs to be taken is switching the station’s public file view to “On”. The licensee makes the file visible to the world by toggling the On/Off button to the On position. This action cannot be undone. Once it is toggled on, it remains on forever.
As part of this process, a pop up box will open requiring the station to certify (and yes, this is exactly how it reads according to the FCC’s demonstration) “I confirm that you are now uploading to your online public inspection file all new public and political file material on a going-forward basis.” This appears to be intended to let the public know which radio stations are First Wave stations (whose online public files are being phased in from June 24th to December 24th), and explain why documents created before June 24th may not yet be in that station’s online public file. Once the certification is checked, the station’s online public file will be visible to the public and a banner will appear stating “This entity has confirmed that it is uploading to the online public inspection file all new public and political file material on a going-forward basis.”
For First Wave stations, public file documents that existed prior to June 24th must be uploaded to the online public file by December 24th. When a station has completed that uploading process, it must go to the Certification tab in the public file and certify “Yes, I certify I have uploaded all existing public file material required to be included in the online public inspection file” and then enter the name of the person certifying. A banner stating “This entity has confirmed that it has completed uploading of all existing public file material required to be included in the online public file” will then appear and be visible to the public. Stations obviously will want to make sure this is an accurate statement before making the certification.
While this somewhat complicated process may make radio stations nostalgic for paper files, the transition on June 24th should be much smoother for full power and Class A television stations. The FCC plans to move all materials in a TV station’s current online public file into the new system by June 24th. According to the FCC, the links that stations have on their websites to their online public inspection files in BPIF should still work in an OPIF world, as the FCC intends to automatically redirect that link to the new online filing system. However, stations are still encouraged to update the link on their website on June 24th to be certain visitors actually reach the new online public file location. More immediately, the direct link that TV stations are required to have on their website to their most recent EEO public inspection file report (if the report itself is not posted on the station website) will not be redirected by the FCC. As a result, such TV stations need to manually fix that link on their website as of June 24 or be in violation of the EEO report posting requirement.
One final note: in the new database, the FCC has hidden the various document folders under the “Manage” tab, so television stations that are used to seeing all their materials immediately upon logging in should click that tab before assuming the FCC failed to import their public file documents into the new system.
If “content is king” in programming, then content in the public file is king in a station’s next license renewal. Successfully navigating the transition to an online public file and the worldwide scrutiny it can bring will determine how smoothly that license renewal will go. More immediately, knowing what needs to be in the public file and ensuring it is there on time will avoid public file fines that start at $10,000 and go up from there.