The FCC today released an Order waiving, at least for this year, the requirement that full power, Class A and low power television stations file what has traditionally been known as a Form 317 report by December 1. More formally known as the DTV Ancillary/Supplementary Services Report, and due each December 1 for the past two decades, the reports are now actually filed on Form 2100, Schedule G rather than on the discontinued Form 317 (small wonder that everyone still refers to it as the Form 317 report).
The purpose of the report is to inform the FCC if a TV station has used its spectrum to provide non-broadcast services during the past year, and if so, to submit a payment to the government equivalent to 5% of the gross revenues derived from that service. Ancillary or supplementary services are all services provided on any portion of a DTV station’s digital spectrum that is not necessary to provide the single free over-the-air program stream required by the FCC. Any video broadcast service that is provided with no direct charge to viewers is exempt. According to the FCC, examples of services that are considered ancillary or supplementary include “computer software distribution, data transmissions, teletext, interactive materials, aural messages, paging services, audio signals, subscription video, and the like.” If the station charges a fee for such a service, it must pay the government 5% of the gross revenues derived from that service when it files its report.
The FCC first adopted the requirement in 1999 as a result of a directive contained in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Since then, the rule has required digital full power commercial and noncommercial TV stations, and later Class A and low power television stations, to report annually “whether they provided ancillary or supplementary services in the 12-month period ending on the preceding September 30.” The rule requiring the filing of these reports mandates that TV stations file them whether or not they have any non-broadcast services to report. In fact, the rule pointedly says that failure to file “regardless of revenues from ancillary or supplementary services or provision of such services may result in appropriate sanctions.” As a result, many thousands of these reports have been filed over the years despite the fact that very few stations have ever offered such services.
When the FCC this summer opened the door in its Modernization proceeding for suggestions as to how to eliminate unnecessary regulatory burdens, a chorus rang out in support of modifying this particular rule. In one of those now glaringly obvious “how could someone not have thought of this twenty years ago?” moments, first Commissioner O’Rielly and then numerous commenters suggested modifying the rule to eliminate the requirement for all stations except those that actually provide such services. That led to the FCC voting last month to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing to eliminate the filing requirement for all stations that do not offer ancillary or supplementary services.
Buried in a footnote to that NPRM was the answer to a question many of us had asked over the years; namely, what is the percentage of stations indicating they are actually providing such services? Having been involved in the filing of well over a thousand of these reports over the years, we had yet to file one indicating a station has actually provided ancillary or supplementary services. Now we know that, according to the NPRM, fewer than 15 stations nationwide offered such services in 2016, yielding a total payment to the government of roughly $13,000. That’s fewer than fifteen out of more than 6600 reports filed in 2016 (0.2%).
Stated differently, if the FCC had just asked each of those 6600 stations to mail in $2.00 rather than a report, the government would have garnered more revenue while wasting far less station resources. Of course, that doesn’t take into account the resources the FCC was forced to expend processing 6600 reports looking for the 15 that actually reported revenues, ensuring that fulfilling this congressional mandate currently costs the FCC more than it brings in.
For that reason, today’s Order waiving this year’s filing requirement for stations not offering such services will likely be welcome news not just for those broadcasters, but for FCC staff as well. It does, however, remain a short-term fix. The FCC’s proceeding to permanently change the rule is still underway, with the comment deadline not yet set. Based on today’s waiver, the odds seem pretty good that by the time December 1, 2018 rolls around, a waiver will no longer be necessary as the change will have been incorporated into the rule. In a time when even the most mundane proposals for change can generate fervent opposition, this may be the rare Commission rule that lacks a constituency to defend it to the death.
So the vast majority of stations that had been drafting their 2017 report can stop right now. Of course, if your station is one of the lonely 15 that provided ancillary and supplementary services during the past year, the waiver doesn’t apply and you will still need to file the report and pay the FCC 5% of the gross revenues generated. Then Congress can debate at length where to spend the $13,000.