Articles Posted in Noncommercial Operation

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others.  This month’s issue includes:

  • FCC Proposes Forfeitures Against South Carolina Stations for Failure to Maintain Public Inspection File
  • Noncommercial Station and FCC Settle Dispute Over Promotional Announcements
  • Brooklyn-based Bitcoin Miner Warned Over Harmful Interference
  • FCC Issues Notice to Security Camera Manufacturer for Device ID Violations

FCC Proposes Fine Against Licensee of South Carolina Stations for Failure to Maintain Complete Public Files

In two separate Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (“NALs”) released on the same day, the FCC found two commonly owned radio stations apparently liable for repeated violations of its public inspection file rule.

Section 73.3526 of the FCC’s Rules requires stations to maintain a public inspection file that includes various documents and items related to the broadcaster’s operations.  For example, subsection 73.3526(e)(11) requires TV stations to place in their public inspection file Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists describing the “programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period.”

In their respective license renewal applications, the stations disclosed that they had failed to locate numerous Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists from the 2003 to 2010 time period.  According to the licensee, the gaps in its reporting were due to several personnel changes at all levels of the stations as well as computer and software changes made over the past ten years.

Between the two NALs, the FCC found a total of 38 missing Lists (21 for one station, and 17 for the other station), which it considered a “pattern of abuse.” Pursuant to the FCC’s forfeiture policies and Section 1.80(b)(4) of its Rules, the base forfeiture for a violation of Section 73.3526 is $10,000.  The FCC can adjust the forfeiture upwards or downwards depending on the circumstances of the violation.  Here, the FCC proposed a $12,000 forfeiture in response to the station with 21 missing Lists and a $10,000 forfeiture for the station with 17 missing Lists.  Visit here to learn more about the FCC’s Quarterly Issues/Programs List requirements.  For information on maintaining a public inspection file, check out Pillsbury’s advisory on the topic.

“Ad” Nauseam: FCC Resolves Investigation Into Underwriting Rules Violation

The FCC entered into a Consent Decree with the licensee of two noncommercial educational (“NCE”) radio stations in Arizona and California after receiving complaints that the stations aired commercial advertising in violation of the Communications Act and the FCC’s Rules (together, the “Underwriting Laws”).

Section 399B of the Communications Act of 1934 prohibits noncommercial stations from making their facilities “available to any person for the broadcasting of any advertisement.” Section 73.503(d) of the FCC’s Rules prohibits an NCE station from making promotional announcements “on behalf of for profit entities” in exchange for any benefit or payment.  Such stations may, however, broadcast “underwriting announcements” that identify but do not “promote” station donors.  Such identifications may not, among other things, include product descriptions, price comparisons, or calls to action on behalf of a for-profit underwriter.  The FCC recognizes that it is “at times difficult to distinguish between language that promotes versus that which merely identifies the underwriter,” and expects licensees to exercise good faith judgment in their underwriting messages.

In response to complaints from an individual who alleged that the stations had repeatedly violated the Underwriting Laws, the FCC sent the licensee multiple letters of inquiry regarding questionable underwriting messages between August 2016 and March 2017.  According to the FCC, the licensee did not dispute many of the facts in the letters, and the parties entered into the Consent Decree shortly thereafter.  Under the Consent Decree, the licensee (1) admitted that it violated the Underwriting Laws; (2) is prohibited from airing any underwriting announcement on behalf of a for-profit entity for one year; (3) must implement a compliance plan; and (4) must pay a $115,000 civil penalty.

Brooklyn Bitcoin Mining Operation Draws FCC Ire Over Harmful Interference

The FCC issued a Notification of Harmful Interference (“Notification”) to an individual it found was operating Bitcoin mining hardware in his Brooklyn, New York home.

Section 15 of the FCC’s Rules regulates the use of unlicensed equipment that emits radio frequency energy (“RF devices”), a broad category of equipment that includes many personal electronics, Bluetooth and WiFi-enabled devices, and even most modern light fixtures.  Such devices must not interrupt or seriously degrade an authorized radio communication service.  The FCC’s rules require a device user to cease operation if notified by the FCC that the device is causing harmful interference. Continue reading →

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The FCC announced on Friday afternoon that it would push back the December 1, 2017 deadline for commercial and noncommercial broadcast stations to file their biennial ownership reports.  Rather than opening the filing window on September 1 and closing it on December 1, the FCC will open the window on December 1 and close it on March 2, 2018.  The Commission stressed that it is only changing the filing due date, not the period of time covered by the report.  That is, all reports, regardless of when in the window they are filed, must be accurate as of October 1, 2017.  If a station is sold after October 1, 2017, the former ownership of the station must still be reported when the form is finally filed.

This biennial ownership filing cycle is the first one in which both commercial and noncommercial stations file on the new consolidated filing date, which was to be December 1 of odd numbered years.  In addition, it will be the first one to use new ownership report forms accessed and filed through the FCC’s new Licensing Management System (“LMS”), rather than the CDBS filing system that is being phased out.

In its comments in the FCC’s proceeding to reduce or eliminate regulatory burdens on broadcasters, the NAB had requested that the Commission suspend the December 1, 2017 filing date while it considers comments the NAB and others filed seeking a reduction in the frequency and burden of ownership reporting.  NAB followed that request up with a letter asking that the Commission allow additional time specifically for broadcasters to test the new filing system and revised ownership reporting forms to avoid the debacle that occurred in 2009-2010 when the FCC last updated the form for commercial stations, causing multiple delays and suspensions of the filing deadlines.

In delaying this year’s ownership report filing, the FCC said that it was acting of its own accord to permit adequate time for the integration of the new ownership report forms with the FCC’s LMS filing database.  Whatever the technical issues the FCC faces in that process, there is plenty for broadcasters to do during this delay.  For radio broadcasters, the LMS is an entirely new filing system with which they will need to become familiar.  As broadcasters’ recent experience with the unexpected and dramatic redesign of the Emergency Test Reporting System (ETRS) showed, the learning curve surrounding a new filing system can be very steep and frustrating.

In addition, the FCC requires that all reportable interest holders be identified in the ownership report by one of three types of unique identifiers.  As we have explained before, reportable interest holders must secure a Federal Registration Number (the CORES FRN, not to be confused with the CORES Username and Password needed to access the ETRS), and to do so must provide the FCC with their full Social Security Number.  To address the backlash from those concerned about providing their SSNs, the Commission created a Restricted Use FRN, or RUFRN, that can be used only in ownership reports and requires reporting the interest holder’s name, date of birth, residential address and last four digits of their SSN.  Finally, if an interest holder refuses to release the information needed to secure a CORES FRN or a RUFRN, the licensee may secure a Special Use FRN without revealing any SSN information upon a showing that it made a good faith effort to secure a CORES FRN or RUFRN.

Most recently, the Commission exempted interest holders in noncommercial licensees, many of whom are volunteers, from the CORES FRN/RUFRN requirement going forward, and those licensees may use SUFRNs for their reportable interest holders without having to make a showing of good faith efforts to collect interest holders’ SSNs.

Still, all licensees have some administrative work to do in advance of the ownership report filing, determining which of their interest holders already have a CORES FRN, creating RUFRNs for any interest holders needing them, and determining whether use of the SUFRN is permitted or appropriate for any interest holders.

While the delay will provide broadcasters with more time to address the difficulties of using the new form and filing system, the recent experience with ETRS gives broadcasters plenty to think about as they prepare for their next ownership filing.

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others.  This month’s issue includes:

Headlines:

  • FCC Proposes $66,000 Fine Against Alaska Noncommercial FM Station for EAS and Other Violations
  • Man Faces $120 Million Fine for “Massive” Robocall Operation
  • FCC Proposes $1,500 Fine Against South Carolina AM Station for Late-Filed License Renewal

Alaska Noncommercial FM Station Faces $66,000 Fine for EAS and Other Violations

The FCC proposed a $66,000 fine against an Alaska noncommercial FM station for a number of violations, including actions that the FCC says “undermine the effectiveness of the Emergency Alert System (EAS).”

Section 11.15 of the FCC’s Rules requires that a copy of the EAS Operating Handbook be located “at normal duty stations or EAS equipment locations when an operator is required to be on duty.” In addition, Section 11.35(a) of the Rules states that EAS participants are responsible for ensuring that EAS equipment, such as encoders and decoders, are installed such that “monitoring and transmitting functions are available during the times the stations and system are in operation.” Also, Section 11.52(d)(1) requires EAS participants to monitor two EAS sources.

A June 2013 FCC inspection of the station’s main studio revealed several violations of the FCC’s EAS Rules. Specifically, the FCC agent found that the station (1) did not have an EAS Handbook; (2) did not have properly operating EAS equipment (because the programming and identification of the station’s EAS device was for another station); and (3) was only monitoring one EAS source.

In addition, the agent found numerous violations of the FCC’s other broadcast rules, including: (1) failure to post a valid license as required by Section 73.1230; (2) failure to maintain a public inspection file as required by Section 73.3527; (3) failure to retain the logs required by Section 73.1840; (4) failure to maintain a main studio staff under Section 73.1125(a); (5) inability to produce documentation designating a chief operator as required by Section 73.1870; and (6) failure to ensure that the station was operating in accordance with the terms of the station authorization or within variances permitted under the FCC’s technical rules, as required by Section 73.1400.

The FCC subsequently issued a Notice of Violation (“NOV”) to the station in August 2013. When the FCC did not receive a response from the station within the 20-day deadline specified in the NOV, the FCC sent a Warning Letter to the station in September 2013, and issued two additional NOVs in November 2013 and April 2016 directing the station “to provide information concerning the apparent violations described in the August 2013 NOV.” Despite signing a receipt for the April 2016 NOV, the station again failed to respond.

The base fine amounts for the apparent EAS violations, broadcast violations, and failures to respond to the NOVs total $11,000, $23,000, and $16,000 respectively. The FCC may adjust a fine upward or downward after taking into account the particular facts of each case. Here, citing the station’s failure to respond to FCC documents of four occasions, the FCC concluded that a 100 percent upward adjustment of the base fine for the failures to respond, or an additional $16,000, was warranted. As a result, the FCC proposed a total fine against the station of $66,000.

FCC Proposes $120 Million Fine for Caller ID Spoofing Operation

A Florida man’s spoofing campaign has earned him a proposed $120 million fine. The man apparently caused the display of misleading or inaccurate caller ID information (“spoofing”) on millions of calls to perpetrate an illegal robocalling campaign.

The Truth in Caller ID Act of 2009, as codified in Section 227(e) of the Communications Act and Section 64.1604 of the FCC’s Rules, prohibits any person from knowingly causing, directly or indirectly, any caller ID service to transmit or display misleading or inaccurate caller ID information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value. Continue reading →

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Pillsbury’s communications lawyers have published FCC Enforcement Monitor monthly since 1999 to inform our clients of notable FCC enforcement actions against FCC license holders and others.  This month’s issue includes:

Headlines:

  • Former Broadcast Licensee Faces $144,344 Fine for Operating Kentucky LPTV Station Without a License for 18 Years
  • FCC Proposes $20,000 Fine Against California Noncommercial TV Station for Public File and Related Violations
  • FCC Agrees to Reduce Fines for Untimely Children’s Television Programming Reports Based on Inability to Pay

A “Harmless Chihuahua” No More: FCC Proposes Maximum Fine for Operating Low Power TV Station Without a License

Two individuals are facing a $144,344 proposed fine for operating a Kentucky low power TV (“LPTV”) station without a license for the last 18 years. Section 301 of the Communications Act prohibits any person from operating any apparatus for the transmission of energy, communications, or signals by radio within the United States without FCC authorization. Additionally, Section 74.765 of the FCC’s Rules requires licensees to ensure that a copy of the license is placed in the station’s records and is available for public inspection.

The FCC initially authorized construction of the station in 1987, and the station’s license application was granted in 1990. In April 1993, the FCC granted an application to renew the station’s license for a term expiring August 1, 1998. However, no subsequent license renewal application was ever filed for the station. In April 2004, the FCC sent a letter to the station stating it had not received a license renewal application, and set a 30 day deadline to prove that a renewal application had been filed before the FCC would update its CDBS database to reflect that the license had been cancelled. After receiving no response, the FCC updated CDBS to list the station’s license as “cancelled”.

The FCC later came to learn through an unrelated Experimental STA application that the station was still operating. As a result, in August 2016, FCC agents traveled to the station’s formerly authorized antenna site, where a technician confirmed that the station was, in fact, still operating. The agents then traveled to the station’s studio and spoke with an individual who identified himself as the “operations manager”. The operations manager was unable to provide the agents with evidence of a valid license to operate the station, but asserted that the station’s license renewal application had been filed in 1993, implied that the FCC lost the 1993 filing, and that, as a result, the license remained in effect. The agents informed the operations manager that a current, valid license was necessary to operate the station and that, without one, the station’s transmissions must immediately stop. The agents also issued a Notice of Unlicensed Radio Operation (“NOURO”) stating in bold, capital letters: “UNLICENSED OPERATION OF THIS RADIO STATION MUST BE DISCONTINUED IMMEDIATELY.”

In response to the NOURO, the operations manager reiterated the argument he made to the FCC agents at the station. In addition to asserting that the station never received confirmation of grant of the 1993 renewal, the response stated the station operators had never received any other communication from the FCC about the station, and CDBS showed “that the [1993] renewal was granted on 7/27/1993 without an expiration.” The response argued that the failure to file a renewal application in 1998 should therefore be excused. Further, the response indicated that despite the NOURO’s “request” to cease operations, the station remained on air so as to not deprive its viewers of “their only source of news and other events.” FCC agents returned to the station’s antenna site in September and confirmed that the station was still transmitting.

Consequently, the FCC determined that the station operators had willfully and repeatedly violated Section 301 of the Act. According to FCC records, the Media Bureau mailed the 1993 license renewal to the station’s address of record. The FCC emphasized, however, that regardless of whether the license renewal was actually received, licensees are responsible for knowing their obligations, including their duty to seek timely license renewals. In this regard, the FCC noted that license renewal reminders are “merely provided as a courtesy.” The FCC also rejected the operators’ CDBS argument because (1) CDBS did not exist in 1998, so the station could not have relied on it at the time the license renewal was due, and (2) both CDBS and the 1993 renewal authorization state that the license expired August 1, 1998.

The FCC’s base fine for operation of a station without authorization is $10,000 for each violation or each day of a continuing violation. Citing the “egregious” and “longstanding” nature of the apparent violations, the FCC proposed to fine the station operators $10,000 for each of the 22 days between the day FCC agents spoke to the station’s operations manager in August 2016, and when agents confirmed that the station was still transmitting in September 2016, for a total proposed fine of $220,000. However, because the Communications Act sets the maximum fine amount for continuing violations arising from a single act or failure to act at $144,344, the FCC capped the proposed fine at $144,344. The FCC noted that, absent the statutory maximum, an upward adjustment would have been warranted because the station was operated for more than 18 years after its license expired, and more than 12 years after the FCC declared the station’s license cancelled.

In a separate statement, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly supported the proposed fine, but was appalled that the station “[got] away with operating a pirate TV station for almost twenty years.” He lamented that under past leadership the FCC had “been reduced to a sometimes annoying, sometimes sleepy, but ultimately harmless Chihuahua when it came to protecting broadcast spectrum licenses,” but hoped that pirate operators were now on notice that the FCC “can and will turn that situation around.”

California Noncommercial TV Station Licensee Faces $20,000 Proposed Fine for Public Inspection File and Related Violations

The FCC proposed a $20,000 fine against a California noncommercial educational (“NCE”) TV station licensee for public inspection file and related violations.

Section 73.3527 of the FCC’s Rules requires NCE licensees to maintain a public inspection file containing specific types of information related to station operations, and subsection 73.3527(b)(2) requires NCE stations to upload most of that information to the FCC-hosted online public inspection file. Among the materials required to be in the file are a station’s Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists, which must be retained until final FCC action on the station’s next license renewal application. Issues/Programs Lists detail programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding quarter. Section 73.3527 also requires stations to keep in their public file for two years from the date of broadcast a list of donors that have supported specific programs. Continue reading →

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Noncommercial stations caught a break today.  For many years, broadcast stations filed annual ownership reports on the anniversary date of their license renewal deadline.  Since those deadlines varied from state to state (and even between radio and TV in the same state), determining whether a station had filed its reports on time could be challenging.  That task was further complicated by the fact that a licensee owning stations in multiple states could elect to consolidate the filing of its ownership reports for all stations on the license renewal date for any one state in which it had a station.

Ultimately, the FCC concluded that the reports didn’t need to be filed annually, and made them biennial.  The result was that it became even more difficult for the FCC to keep track of whether a station had filed on time.  In fact, a licensee that had consolidated its ownership report filing date across multiple states might not even be filing in the same year as the FCC would normally expect.

Ultimately, the FCC gave up and decided to adopt a unified national deadline for commercial TV and radio stations in 2009.  At the same time, it expanded the list of entities that were required to file the reports (previously, sole proprietorships, general partnerships composed only of individuals, and LPTV licensees were exempt).  It set November 1 of odd-numbered years as the consolidated filing deadline, and indicated that it planned to eventually adopt a unified national deadline for noncommercial stations as well.

However, the FCC quickly discovered that given the increased complexity of the reports, and the fact that the information reported in them was required to reflect a station’s ownership as of October 1 of that same year, broadcasters were having trouble generating all of the required ownership reports in just 30 days.  The FCC also had some teething pains with the new electronic form, with the result that the November 1, 2009 deadline ended up being extended multiple times, ultimately resulting in a deadline for the 2009 reports of July 8, 2010.

After that painful ordeal, the FCC in 2011 permanently moved the commercial station deadline to December 1 of odd-numbered years, providing stations with a 61-day period to file the reports.  Perhaps because of how difficult and drawn out the process of establishing a unified deadline for commercial stations had been, the FCC moved very slowly in establishing the promised unified deadline for noncommercial stations.  It wasn’t until January 8, 2016 that the FCC moved forward on that front, adopting an Order creating a new online form (FCC Form 2100, Schedule 323-E) and establishing a unified national deadline for noncommercial stations to file it.  Because the new form had to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget (and that approval published in the Federal Register) before it could be used, it has still not gone into effect, meaning that throughout 2016, noncommercial stations have continued to file on a state-by-state basis using the old form.  It therefore seemed likely that a lot of noncommercial stations would end up filing two sets of ownership reports in 2017—one set on a station’s license renewal anniversary, and one set on the likely December 1, 2017 unified filing date.

Thankfully, the FCC announced this afternoon that it would not be burdening noncommercial stations with dual filings in 2017, releasing an Order suspending all 2017 biennial ownership reporting deadlines for noncommercial stations and announcing that 2017 will indeed be the year that noncommercial stations will finally have a common ownership reporting deadline.  That deadline will be December 1 of odd-numbered years, the same as the deadline for commercial stations.

That’s good news for noncommercial stations in general, and particularly for those with limited resources to make such filings.  Consider it an early Christmas gift from the FCC.

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November 2016

The staggered deadlines for noncommercial radio and television stations to file Biennial Ownership Reports remain in effect and are tied to each station’s respective license renewal filing deadline.

Noncommercial radio stations licensed to communities in Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont must electronically file their Biennial Ownership Reports by December 1, 2016. Licensees must file using FCC Form 323-E and must also place the form as filed in their station’s public inspection file.

On January 8, 2016, the Commission adopted changes to the ownership report forms and a single national filing deadline for all noncommercial radio and television broadcast stations like the one that the FCC previously established for all commercial radio and television stations. However, until the Office of Management and Budget approves the new forms, noncommercial radio and television stations should continue to file their biennial ownership reports every two years by the anniversary date of the station’s license renewal application filing deadline.

A PDF of this article can be found at Biennial Ownership Reports are due by December 1, 2016 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota and Noncommercial Television Stations in Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont

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November 2016

All commercial and noncommercial educational digital television broadcast station licensees and permittees must file FCC Form 2100 – Schedule G by December 1, 2016.

The FCC requires all digital television stations, including all commercial and noncommercial educational full power television stations, digital low power television stations, digital translator television stations, and digital Class A television stations, to submit FCC Form 2100 – Schedule G (formerly known as the FCC Form 317) each year. The report details whether stations provided ancillary or supplemental services at any time during the twelve-month period ending on the preceding September 30. It is important to note that the Form 2100 – Schedule G must be submitted regardless of whether stations offered such services. Form 2100 – Schedule G must be filed electronically in the Commission’s Licensing and Management System (“LMS”), absent a waiver, and is due on December 1, 2016.

Ancillary or supplementary services are all services provided on the portion of a DTV station’s digital spectrum that is not necessary to provide the required single free, over-the-air signal to viewers. 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, but are not limited to, “computer software distribution, data transmissions, teletext, interactive materials, aural messages, paging services, audio signals, subscription video, and the like.”

If a DTV station provided ancillary or supplementary services during the 12-month time period ending on September 30, 2016, it must pay the FCC 5% of the gross revenues derived from the provision of those services. This payment can be forwarded to the FCC’s lockbox at the U.S. Bank in St. Louis, Missouri and must be accompanied by FCC Form 159, the Remittance Advice. Alternatively, the fee can be paid electronically using a credit card on the FCC’s website. The fee amount must also be submitted by the December 1, 2016 due date.

A PDF of this article can be found at Annual DTV Ancillary/Supplementary Services Report Due for Commercial and Noncommercial Digital Television Stations

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The staggered deadlines for noncommercial radio and television stations to file Biennial Ownership Reports remain in effect and are tied to each station’s respective license renewal filing deadline.

Noncommercial radio stations licensed to communities in Iowa or Missouri and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, American Samoa, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands must electronically file their Biennial Ownership Reports by October 3, 2016 (because October 1 falls on a weekend, submission of this filing to the FCC may be made on the following business day). Licensees must file using FCC Form 323-E and must also place the form as filed in their station’s public inspection file.

On January 8, 2016, the Commission adopted changes to the ownership report forms and a single national filing deadline for all noncommercial radio and television broadcast stations like the one that the FCC previously established for all commercial radio and television stations. However, until the Office of Management and Budget approves the new forms, noncommercial radio and television stations should continue to file their biennial ownership reports every two years by the anniversary date of the station’s license renewal application filing deadline.

A PDF of this article can be found at Biennial Ownership Reports are due by October 3, 2016 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in Iowa and Missouri and Noncommercial Television Stations in Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, American Samoa, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands.

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The staggered deadlines for noncommercial radio and television stations to file Biennial Ownership Reports remain in effect and are tied to each station’s respective license renewal filing deadline.

Noncommercial radio stations licensed to communities in Illinois and Wisconsin and noncommercial television stations licensed to communities in California, North Carolina and South Carolina must electronically file their Biennial Ownership Reports by August 1, 2016. Licensees must file using FCC Form 323-E and must also place the form as filed in their station’s public inspection file. Television stations must ensure that a copy of the form is posted to their online public inspection file at https://publicfiles.fcc.gov/.

On January 8, 2016, the Commission adopted a single national filing deadline for all noncommercial radio and television broadcast stations like the one that the FCC previously established for all commercial radio and television stations. However, until the Office of Management and Budget approves the new forms, noncommercial radio and television stations should continue to file their biennial ownership reports every two years by the anniversary date of the station’s license renewal application filing deadline.

A PDF of this article can be found at Biennial Ownership Reports are due by August 1, 2016 for Noncommercial Radio Stations in Illinois and Wisconsin and Noncommercial Television Stations in California, North Carolina and South Carolina.

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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.