Broadcasters were spared some of the uncertainty related to the December 22, 2018 government shutdown because the FCC was able to independently fund its operations until January 3, 2019. Yesterday, those funds ran out, and under the Antideficiency Act, FCC employees are prohibited from continuing to work until funds are available to pay them. While the Antideficiency Act doesn’t directly affect the FCC’s filing and other databases (being automated, they don’t get paid as FCC employees), some of those systems are incapable of operating without regular human intervention, and some can operate without human intervention only until they “break”, at which point the Antideficiency Act prohibits anyone from maintaining or repairing them.
As a result, it wasn’t clear until the past two days which systems might remain online, and which systems would be preemptively taken down to avoid “breakage”. The FCC released a Public Notice on Wednesday clarifying that the last normal day of business prior to the shutdown was January 2, 2019 (January 3 being only a half-day), so any FCC filings due on January 3rd or thereafter are now due on the day after the day the Commission eventually reopens.
The Public Notice also listed certain Commission electronic filing and database systems that would remain operational during the shutdown, and certain systems that would be taken offline. Absent from either list was the FCC’s online Public Inspection File database, and conversations with FCC staff minutes before they were required to leave the building indicated that even they didn’t know for sure whether the public file database would continue operating during the shutdown.
The answer became clear late yesterday afternoon when the online Public Inspection File database ceased to function, redirecting stations trying to upload documents and any members of the public wishing to view them to a webpage describing the shutdown. The public’s inability to access the online Public File triggers the obligation on the part of broadcasters and cable/DBS systems to make available to the public a back-up copy of the political broadcasting portion of their Public Inspection File (generally referred to as the “Political File”). At the time the Commission created that obligation, it said stations could keep the Political File either electronically or in paper and make it available either at their main studio or on their website.
With the elimination of the Main Studio rule, however, that obligation was further modified such that Political File documents that are not available via the Commission’s online database must now be made available at an “accessible location” in the station’s community of license during normal business hours. An accessible location would include a station office, the local library, the office of another broadcaster, or any other business. Broadcasters are not required to make any other portion of their Public Inspection File beyond the Political File available during the federal shutdown.
Moving beyond the Political File “backup” obligation, the shutdown of the online Public Inspection File database also means that broadcasters cannot upload their Quarterly Issues/Programs List or Children’s Commercial Television Limits compliance documents that would otherwise be due in the online Public Inspection File on January 10, 2019. Accordingly, while the upload of Public File documents is not considered an FCC “filing”, the date to upload those documents has effectively been extended until after the Commission reopens.
However, the inability to upload materials to the Public File does not relieve stations of their recordkeeping obligations. As stated in a 2016 Public File Report and Order by the FCC, “[i]f the Commission’s online file becomes temporarily inaccessible for the uploading of new documents, [the FCC] will require entities to maintain those documents and upload them to the file once it is available again for upload.” These materials do not need to be made available to the public during the shutdown, but stations should proceed as usual in the creation of their January 10th documentation and be prepared to upload those materials once the online Public Inspection File database becomes accessible.
Note also that television stations, while not obligated to, can still file their Children’s Television Programming Reports (that would normally be due on January 10th) with the FCC. This is because the FCC has left the LMS filing system up and running for incentive auction-related filings (which are excluded from the shutdown because auction-related activities at the FCC are separately funded—see below). However, the Commission’s Public Notice is clear that, other than auction filings and those necessary for the protection of life and property, filings at the FCC during the lapse in government funding “will not be reviewed or processed and will be considered accepted on the day following the day of return to normal operations.”
Finally, be aware that because the spectrum auction operations of the FCC remain fully funded, they are NOT affected by the government shutdown. FCC staff will continue to be available to answer questions, grant requests for Special Temporary Authority and process requests for reimbursement from television broadcasters that are transitioning to another channel as a result of the broadcast incentive auction and repack. Because those FCC operations continue, the FCC left its LMS database up and running, which means that transitioning television stations CAN and MUST make filings related to their transition. This includes the Quarterly Transition Progress Report due on January 10, which must still be filed by that date. For stations assigned to Phase 2 of the transition, the obligation to notify cable and satellite TV distributors 90 days prior to a station’s transition to a new channel, and the deadline for filing with the FCC a request for any extension of time to transition, remain unchanged. In that regard, FCC staff will still be available to provide Phase 2 transition stations with the mailing addresses of the multichannel video programming distributors to which the notices must be sent.
So if upon hearing of the FCC shutdown you thought you could extend that holiday vacation, think again. Your regulatory obligations didn’t go away, they just became more complicated to fulfill.