In a speech to the Free Press Summit, Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps suggested that broadcast license renewals should no longer be a "postcard", but instead should be a real test of the broadcaster’s service to the public interest – and should happen every three years, rather than on the eight year renewal cycle that is currently provided for by the law. While the Chairman acknowledged that many suggest that the old media are in troubled times and may well be supplanted by new forms of communications, "If old media is going to be with us a while still…we still need to get serious about defining broadcasters’ public interest obligations and reinvigorating our license renewal process." In other words, while broadcasters may be dying, we should regulate them while we can.
First, it should be pointed out that the broadcast license renewal is no longer a postcard, and really hasn’t been for almost 20 years. The current renewal forms require certifications on many matters demonstrating a broadcaster’s service to the public and its compliance with the rules, and additional documentation on EEO performance and other matters. TV broadcasters also have substantial renewal submissions on their compliance with their obligations under the Children’s television rules. Issues of noncompliance with the rules resulted in many fines in the last renewal cycle, demonstrating that this is not a process where the FCC is without teeth. Yet most of these fines were for paperwork violations (e.g. not keeping detailed records of EEO outreach or quarterly issues programs lists demonstrating the public interest programming broadcast by a station), not for any substantive claims that station licensees were fundamentally unqualified and should forfeit their licenses. In fact, the Acting Chairman’s speech recognizes that most broadcasters do a fine job serving their communities, yet he believes that more regulation is necessary to police those that don’t. But is this the time to be imposing additional regulatory burdens on all of the industry, for the actions of a few. Will the overall public interest be served by such actions? .
As we wrote years ago when this proposal was proposal was previously floated by Commissioner Copps, the license renewal process was lengthened based on findings that the old process was cumbersome and unnecessary – often provoking litigation and delay, but only rarely uncovering any real evidence of serious problems with a licensee warranting Commission action. There simply were no benefits to the substantially increased costs of the 3 year license term. Moreover, the processing of the applications imposed a substantial burden on an already overworked FCC staff that took their attention off of the processing of the many other matters already before them.
The period was gradually extended – going to 5 years for TV and 7 years for radio, and reaching its current 8 year term as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Act specifies that the license renewal term shall be for "not more than 8 years," theoretically leaving the FCC with the flexibility to decide on some term less than 8 years. However, when the Commission decided in 1997 to extend the renewal term to the full 8 years, it did so relying on statements of Congressional intent that Congress had expected to lighten the regulatory burden on broadcasters by extending the term for the full period. Thus, were the FCC to try to shorten this period, it would have to explain why these findings were no longer relevant.
According to Broadcasting and Cable, Commissioner Copps later stated that he did not expect to rule on localism issues, or presumably raise this license renewal extension, during his interim chairmanship. And the NAB immediately objected to the proposal. Yet, as this issue has been raised by the Acting Chairman before, and as he will remain on the Commission even when the permanent Chair is seated, we can no doubt expect to hear this proposal raised yet again, perhaps in a formal setting, in the near future. Broadcasters should be prepared to address any such formal proposal.