Coming Soon: FCC to Require TV Broadcasters to Post Contents of Public File Online
The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) took a major step today toward requiring television broadcasters to place the contents of their local public inspection file online. With today’s action, the FCC is fast-tracking a 2007 Report and Order that required television broadcasters to put their local public inspection file online. The 2007 decision did not take effect thanks to court challenges to the new rules and to inaction by the Office of Management and Budget with respect to adopting a standardized television disclosure form (FCC Form 355) that would have replaced how broadcasters prepare their Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists.
The 2007 Report and Order required television broadcasters for the first time to post their public inspection file (with the exception of their political file) online if the station had a web site. In addition, broadcasters would have been required to complete and post Form 355 on their websites on a quarterly basis. The FCC claimed these changes would not change the materials that broadcasters would have to maintain in the local public inspection file but by posting the material online would make the contents more readily available to the public. Understandably, broadcasters appealed the FCC decision, concerned about the onerous burdens of the new rules. Almost four years later, none of the new public file requirements have gone into effect for the reasons discussed above.
Recognizing the impasse that it faced, today the FCC vacated the 2007 Report and Order -- in essence the agency rescinded its proposals. Instead, the FCC commenced a new rule making proceeding to achieve the same goal of broadcasters posting the public file online. Under the new proposal:
● The FCC would create an online portal that broadcasters would use to post their local public file. Broadcasters would not have to place the information on their website.
● Broadcasters would not have to post information already on file with the FCC; the agency would import that information to the online public file.
● Broadcasters would not post online some information, such as letters and e-mails from the public.
● Broadcasters could be required to post other information, such as sponsorship identification information (i.e., political) and shared services agreements.
● A revised enhanced disclosure form would be adopted.
● Data tools would be created for the public to access and evaluate this information.
The FCC views today’s proposal as consistent with a government-wide mandate to increase transparency and with the Commission’s broader efforts to modernize data while transitioning from a paper to electronic world. What is left unsaid is the enormous cost that these proposals will impose on television broadcasters. It does not necessarily follow that the low barrier to accessing this information will serve the public interest. The placement of this material online, while commendable on one hand, could open the floodgate for the filing of spurious petitions against broadcasters. Broadcasters could experience a significant increase in expenses in defending against such frivolous complaints. One need look no further than the deluge of indecency complaints made possible by the FCC with on-line filing to see how ineffective and costly this process (no matter how commendable) could be.
These concerns do not even include the considerable expense broadcasters will incur transferring the contents of the local public file online, whether to a station website or the FCC. Nor does this take into consideration the costs broadcasters will incur morphing their Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists into the new enhanced disclosures form, in the event the FCC decides to implement a revised form.
Radio broadcasters should take heed. If the Commission successfully adopts and implements these new requirements, rest assured that one day soon the FCC will extend these requirements to radio broadcasters as well.