The FCC today adopted new requirements for television broadcasters to quarterly file a report with the FCC quantifying their service to the public. The order also requires that stations keep their public file on their website, if they have a website. Broadcasters will also be required to broadcast twice each day a notice as to how listeners can find their public file. This order resolves some of the issues raised in a rulemaking proceeding (about which we wrote here) begun over 7 years ago as part of the rules to govern TV’s digital transition. Yet these new rules apply to analog as well as digital television operations. In fact, the public file rule goes into effect 60 days after the publication of the FCC’s order in the Federal Register.
The new FCC form will replace the Quarterly Issues Programs lists prepared by licensees since the mid-1980s. The Quarterly Issues lists were originally adopted to replace more detailed reporting requirements which forced broadcasters to collect and file the same types of information that the FCC is now requesting. While the new forms are not yet released, from the discussion at the FCC meeting, it appears that they will require the following information:
- Details about civic and election coverage provided by the station
- Information about programming from independent producers that is aired by the station
- Information about the number of Public Service announcements (PSAs) aired by the station
- A description of efforts that the station has undertaken to serve its community
- Specifics about emergency information provided by the station
- Information about how emergency and other information is provided to viewers with disabilities
- There was also some discussion that indicated that the reports would require information about how stations ascertain the needs of their community that are addressed in their programs.
While these new reports do not impose any new standards on a broadcaster requiring a specific amount of any type of programming, at least Commissioner Copps expressed his hope that this was but a first step in developing mandatory requirements for specific amounts of public service and public affairs programming for TV broadcasters. Commissioner McDowell, on the other hand, recognized the implicit threat that these forms imposed – by requiring the detailed reporting of the types of programming that a station airs, the FCC is implicitly urging stations to air that kind of programming. He feared that this was moving the FCC in the wrong direction toward more regulation and treading on First Amendment concerns.
Commissioner McDowell also expressed concerns about how stations – especially smaller ones – would meet the requirement that they have their public files online in 60 days. While there was some discussion about the potential for waivers by smaller stations which maintain a bare-bones website or are otherwise financially distressed, one wonders if the Commission fully understands what needs to be in a public file, and the potential issues that can arise from putting it all on-line. Not only will there be these new quarterly filings that will need to be put online (or linked to, as apparently the Commission will allow a station to link to documents that are already online), but there will also need to be links to children’s programming reports, EEO annual reports, and Ownership filings on FCC Form 323. Stations will also need to put on their websites Network Affiliation Agreements, LMAs or JSAs, documents relating to their ownership (including options, pledges and other financial documents that set limitations on the operation of the station) and various other sometimes voluminous documents. From what was said at the meeting, about the only documents that will not need to be put on the website will be political file contents and letters from the public that are sent by "snail mail" (though email letters from the public will need to be maintained online). I would fear that these obligations will be the kind of "gotcha" rules that will lead to fines at license renewal time, just as the failure to keep a complete public file, to complete Quarterly Issues Programs lists, or to observe all the obligations of the children’s television rules led to so many fines during the recent renewal cycle.
This summary is based on the Commission’s brief Public Notice about the actions, and the statements made at the FCC meeting. When the full text of the Commission’s order is released, we will know more about the details of these requirements. Stay tuned, and start thinking about increasing the electronic storage capacity of your station website.