Several months ago, we wrote of the FCC’s requirements for a new biennial Ownership Report for all commercial broadcast stations – to be filed by all stations in every state on November 1 of every other year – beginning with November 1 of this year. The FCC has even suspended the requirements for commercial stations to file reports that were due between the date that the rule was adopted and November 1 (reports being due on the even anniversaries of the filing of license renewal applications for stations in the state to which the station is licensed). Yet, here we are, less than a month from the supposed filing deadline for the new forms, and we’ve not seen any notice from the FCC that the new forms are ready to be used or any reminder for broadcasters to prepare and file those reports. What gives? Well, the Paperwork Reduction Act has struck again.
We’ve written about the Paperwork Reduction Act before, and its obligation that the FCC (or almost any other government agency) has to justify any new paperwork obligation that it is imposing on companies that it regulates – showing that the burden is as minimal as possible and serves a necessary regulatory process. Here, when the new ownership reports on FCC Form 323 were submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for approval under the Paperwork Reduction Act, several parties, including the NAB, objected that information requested by the new form was unnecessarily complex, and in fact might violate other Federal laws (in particular Federal Privacy laws) as they required not only the filing of information about the companies who own radio stations with identification of their owners, but required that each and every attributable owner of a station (and actually including a few nonattributable owners who must be reported under the new reporting scheme), obtain an FCC "FRN" identification number that would be attached to that person and uniquely identify them in connection with each and every broadcast interest that they have. In most cases, that would require that the individual provide a social security number (and corporate entities would have to file Taxpayer ID numbers). While the FCC promised to keep those identification numbers private, security issues were not addressed and questions were raised why the Commission had to put so many individuals through so much of a burden when the FCC reports had not been adopted to track individual ownership interests, but instead to track the minority ownership of broadcast stations. Other issues with the new forms were also raised, as the new forms would have required many filings for stations held in independent corporations, but with a common parent company as parent companies cannot simply cross-reference multiple licensee companies that they own, but instead have to file multiple ownership reports for each licensee company in which they have an interest. In addition, ownership structures and other broadcast interests can no longer be identified by PDF attachments, but they instead needed to be separately entered into their own fields on the new form. The idea was to make the information searchable – but it would also result in vastly more time to prepare these reports.
With these objections on file (and they were only due in mid-September), it seems unlikely that the November 1 projected deadline for the new forms will hold, as it is already very late for the forms to be released to broadcasters and prepared in time to meet the new filing deadline. As the FCC also has not yet sorted out the question of whether noncommercial licensees will have to file the new reports, perhaps a new date for this filing obligation will be set once all of these issues have been resolved. Look for more information on these issues soon.
UPDATE: See our update as, later in the day that we wrote this artilce, the FCC suspended all of the commercial radio ownership filing deadlines until they can get a new Form 323 approved by the OMB.