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FCC’s Media Bureau Rescinds Ruling on New Noncom Ownership Reporting Rules

Just 29 days ago, the FCC’s Media Bureau issued an unusual decision denying Petitions for Reconsideration of an order adopted by the commissioners themselves, raising questions as to who’s in charge at the FCC.  The petitions were filed by noncommercial broadcasters in the Commission’s long-running proceeding to update its broadcast ownership reporting requirements.  Today, a much different Media Bureau backtracked on that decision—the FCC’s rules give it 30 days to change its mind—and decided that ruling on petitions seeking reconsideration of a Commission-level order is a matter best left to the commissioners themselves.

You may recall “SUFRN” through my blog post a year ago when the Wheeler FCC issued its Report and Order making changes to the commercial and noncommercial broadcast ownership reporting forms while attempting to quell broadcasters’ long-running opposition to providing Social Security Numbers to the FCC as part of the reporting process.  The FCC has long wanted individuals who hold attributable ownership interests in broadcast stations to have unique personal identifiers so that their ownership interests can be more easily tracked.

By the end of the Report and Order, the Commission had established three different options for the unique identifier:  the FRN, or Federal Registration Number, which requires the submission of an individual’s full Social Security Number (SSN); the Restricted Use FRN (RUFRN), which requires the submission of only the last four digits of the SSN, but also full name, date of birth, and address; and the Special Use FRN (SUFRN), which is only to be used when an individual (e.g., a board member) refuses to comply with the FRN/RUFRN obligation.  While technically allowing use of a SUFRN, the FCC noted that those using a SUFRN could be subject to enforcement actions for non-compliance with the Commission’s rules.

When the Report and Order was released, then-Commissioner Pai criticized the time and effort spent on coming up with what he termed this “blizzard of acronyms” and stated that, in particular, noncommercial broadcasters should be exempt from it:

I cannot support the Commission’s imposition of a requirement that the officers and directors of noncommercial educational (NCE) broadcasters provide us with personal information, including the last four digits of an SSN, to obtain unique identifiers.  For one, I fail to see how this will lead to any tangible benefit.  After all, our multiple ownership rules do not apply to NCE stations.  And “in contrast with the commercial broadcast industry, where individuals often have multiple commercial broadcast interests, the existence of such interests is in fact quite rare in the case of NCE board members and officers.”  Therefore, unless we have reason to believe that many Americans are suddenly going to start volunteering to serve on the boards of multiple public broadcasting stations at once (and the record doesn’t suggest that), the case for requiring NCE board members and officers to obtain a reliable unique identifier from the Commission is incredibly thin.

A number of noncommercial broadcasters petitioned for reconsideration of the Report and Order, arguing that the requirement to either submit an SSN or the last four digits of an SSN combined with additional personal information was unduly burdensome, especially considering that their board members are often community volunteers or government officials appointed to the board by virtue of their jobs.  The petitions sat at the FCC for eight months, but when the departure of Chairman Wheeler became imminent, the Media Bureau took up the petitions and rejected them as merely being a rehash of what had already been argued and rejected by a majority of the five commissioners a year before.

Today, however, the Media Bureau (with a sign out front saying “Under New Management”) issued a six-sentence Order taking back its decision rejecting the petitions for reconsideration.  It returned the petitions to “pending” status, concluding that the petitions “are more appropriately handled at the Commission level.”

With the next biennial ownership report filing deadline ten months away, noncom stations can now wait out this decision-making process before having to apply for the FCC acronym of their choice.  Given the change in administration, Chairman Pai’s stance on the issue, and today’s Media Bureau Order, it seems a good bet that at least noncom broadcasters will not be “SUFRN” under this requirement going forward.  However, the impact might not be limited to noncom stations.  Commercial broadcasters will also be watching this proceeding to see whether Chairman Pai might have something to say about how the “blizzard of acronyms” will be applied to commercial TV and radio stations.  2017 is off to an interesting start at the FCC.

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