Second Time's the Charm? FCC Again Requires Television Broadcasters to Post Their Public File Online
It’s déjà vu all over again. For the second time in five years, the Federal Communications Commission will require commercial and noncommercial television broadcasters to post their local public inspection file online. The FCC plans to phase in the online posting requirements over the next two years, starting with TV broadcasters in the largest markets. The first requirement will be for stations to post the political file online, with the rest of the public file to follow thereafter. Here’s a summary of what we know so far.
The FCC will require television stations to post their public files in a central, FCC-hosted website rather than in the paper file currently maintained at the station’s main studio. The FCC will post to the public file those items filed electronically with the agency, such as applications and reports. The licensees will have the obligation to post their remaining public file documents online, such as quarterly issues/programs lists and EEO Public File Reports. Letters from the public, sponsorship identification and shared services agreements would be retained at the station’s main studio.
Broadcasters have expressed concern that political file information, which includes the rates charged to candidates, is sensitive. As an alternative to providing data on the rates charged per spot for political ads, broadcasters had proposed measures such as reporting aggregated data regarding the buying habits of candidates and groups and the total amounts paid for political advertising.
The FCC rejected this proposal in favor of gradually phasing in the requirement that TV broadcasters post their political files, based on their most current political data, online. This requirement will take effect for the top four national networks in the top 50 markets later this summer and starting July 1, 2014 for the remaining television broadcasters. Other stations could request a waiver based on financial or technical hardship. The FCC will defer consideration of adopting these online requirements for radio licensees and multichannel video programming distributors for now until the FCC has experience with online posting by TV broadcasters.
The FCC’s previous effort to require broadcasters to post their public files online never took effect. Broadcasters pursued legal challenges at the FCC, in court and with the Office of Budget and Management (“OMB”). Instead of seeing the appeal process through, the FCC abandoned its effort and started a new proceeding in October 2011. The agency adopted substantially the same requirements for posting the public file online in today’s action.
Expect legal challenges to the new rules along the same lines as previous challenges. Presumably the first goal will be to request that the courts stay the FCC’s new rules while considering the legal challenges. The stay request most likely would argue that disclosing the political file information online would cause irreparable harm even if an appeal of the new public file rules were successful. Absent some kind of legal delay, network stations in the top 50 markets most likely would have to begin posting their political files online as early as this summer – just in time for the fall election season.
Stay tuned – we will have more on this decision next week.