In a Notice of Apparent Liability released yesterday, the FCC proposed to fine a TV station $20,000 for being late in the filing of 4 years of Quarterly Children’s Television Programming Reports (FCC Form 398). While the penalty is consistent with the size of penalties that the FCC has been imposing for similar violations in recent years (see our article here), the means by which the FCC apparently discovered the violation is what perhaps makes this case most interesting. The FCC states that it discovered the issues as follows: “a Commission review of the Station’s online public file (e-pif) revealed that the Station did not file its Children’s Television Programming Reports for sixteen (16) quarters in a timely manner.” So they are saying that it was not in reviewing the FCC records of the filing of the Form 398s that tipped them off to the late filings, but instead the violations were brought to their attention as the reports were never were automatically uploaded to the station’s online public file (as FCC filings that are to be included in the public file are automatically uploaded to that online file maintained as maintained by the FCC – see our summary of the FCC public file rules for TV here).
The licensee in this case failed to report the late-filings in its license renewal application, so the $20,000 fine actually is made up of a $17,000 fine for the late filings, and $3000 for the failure to report the violation in the renewal application. But it does suggest that having an online file makes it easier for the FCC, and for any other interested party, to see where stations fail in their paperwork obligations – as it puts all of a station’s required documents in one place. With radio stations soon to see their public files going electronic (see our articles here and here), they too will have to worry about the review of their activities. We’ve already seen FCC complaints about TV station’s alleged paperwork deficiencies in the political broadcasting portion of the online public file (see our article here). Now with this indication that the online public file is the source of concerns about Children’s Television Programming Reports, are fines based on the late filing of other documents (e.g. the Quarterly Issues Programs Lists) far behind? I have said many times when doing presentations to broadcasting groups that the online file allows any interested party, from the comfort of their own home, to view a station’s compliance with the FCC’s paperwork obligations. Interested parties can sit around in their PJs and fuzzy slippers, over their morning cup of coffee, and determine if your station has met its obligations. The online public file thus provides just one more reason for broadcasters to be careful to fully comply with paperwork obligations, as you never know who will be watching.