The FCC on Tuesday voted to abolish the 44 year old requirement that commercial broadcast stations retain, in their public file, letters (and emails) from the public dealing with station operations (see the full Order here). As noted by the Commissioners in their comments at the FCC meeting (and as we suggested here and here when this proposal was first introduced), these documents were rarely if ever accessed by the public. Mirroring our comments from last year, the Commission noted that, in today’s world, where social media is where so many people take to comment on each broadcaster’s every action, and where the comments are open to all and preserved for posterity, the requirement for the retention of letters in a paper public file was felt to be no longer necessary. Plus, with the rest of the public file either already online or soon to go online when the last radio stations convert to the FCC-mandated online public file next year (see our articles here and here), the elimination of this requirement allows stations to have more security at the main studios as people can’t just show up unannounced to view the file, as required under the current rules. Note that this will change the rules only for commercial stations – noncommercial stations have never had the obligation to include letters from the public in their public inspection files.
Much of this was expected in light of the new deregulatory bent of the Commission. About the only issue that had not previously been highlighted was the associated elimination of the requirement for TV stations that they report letters from the public about violent programming in their license renewal applications. The statute requiring the disclosure of these letters applied only to letters which the FCC rules required to be retained by the station. As the FCC will no longer require those letters be retained, the FCC found that the need to report letters about violent programming was now moot – and instructed the Media Bureau to delete the requirement from the license renewal forms. Because the reporting requirement lacked any real purpose, since the FCC has never sanctioned a broadcaster for violent programming and likely has no jurisdiction to restrict such programming, the abolition seems to be nothing more than the elimination of an unnecessary paperwork burden on broadcasters.
The FCC also abolished the obligation of cable television systems to keep in their public files the location of their headends, subject to required disclosures to the FCC and to broadcasters who may need this information for must carry/retransmission consent purposes. These actions become effective upon the publication in the Federal Register of the approval of these rule changes by the Office of Management and Budget under the Paperwork Reduction Act – seemingly a formality give the deregulatory nature of this action. But, technically, until that publication, the rule remains in effect, so stations shouldn’t rush to the dumpster with their correspondence files just yet.
So, while this action was pretty much expected and generally not controversial, the real question is what is next? There was some discussion at the meeting and in the press conference thereafter about looking for unnecessarily regulatory requirements for the FCC to abolish. As we wrote here and here, there are many other issues already on the table from ownership issues to EEO reform. The proposal for allowing EEO wide dissemination to be accomplished through online sources was almost unanimously supported in comments that were filed earlier this week – so perhaps that proposal will advance to the next stage as a formal proposal soon. We’ll be watching to see what the new FCC’s next move will be.