As we enter the last full month of summer, when many are already looking forward to the return to the more normal routines of autumn, regulatory obligations for broadcasters don’t end. Even if you are trying to squeeze in that last-minute vacation before school begins or other Fall commitments arise, there are filing deadlines this month, as well as comment deadline in an FCC proceeding dealing with broadcasters’ public inspection file obligations. Some of the August regulatory obligations are routine, others are new – but broadcasters need to be aware of them all.
On the routine side of things, by August 1, EEO Public Inspection File Reports need to be placed in the public inspection files of radio and TV stations in California, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin, if those stations are part of an Employment Unit with five or more full-time employees. For Radio Station Employment Units with 11 or more full-time employees in Illinois and Wisconsin and Television Employment Units with five or more full-time employees in North Carolina and South Carolina, FCC Form 397 Mid-Term Reports need to be submitted to the FCC by August 1. These Mid-Term Reports provide the FCC with your last two EEO public file reports, plus some additional information. In the past, they have sometimes triggered more thorough EEO reviews and, in some cases, even fines. Yesterday, we wrote about the kinds of issues that can get a broadcaster into trouble when the FCC looks at your EEO performance, so be sure to stay on top of your EEO obligations. We wrote more about the Form 397 Mid-Term Reports, here.
August 1 is also the deadline for noncommercial television stations in California, North Carolina, and South Carolina and noncommercial AM and FM radio stations in Illinois and Wisconsin to complete and file their Biennial Ownership Reports. While the FCC has decided to make the Biennial Ownership Report filing requirement for noncommercial stations the same as that for commercial stations (meaning that these reports will be filed by December 1 of 2017 and by December 1 of every odd-numbered year thereafter), that new filing deadline has not gone into effect. Because of appeals of other issues related to the new obligation (see our article here), dealing with the identification of attributable owners by noncommercial broadcasters, it may still be a while before this issue is finalized. So, until then, existing deadlines for noncommercial biennial ownership reports apply.
There are also some other deadlines that will arise in August. No doubt, the deadline for the submission of annual regulatory fees for commercial broadcasters will be announced, along with the amount of such fees, though the payment deadline itself will likely be in September. However, the FCC’s applications fees are going up effective August 26. Thus, whenever a commercial station files an application that requires a fee (which includes applications for construction permits, to approve transfers and assignments, and for changes in call signs), the new fees will apply. The new fee schedule can be found in today’s Federal Register publication, here.
Broadcasters also have a new obligation to sign up for a new FCC filing system that will allow them to electronically report on the success of the next EAS National Test, to be conducted on September 28. The new registration system, called EAS Test Reporting System (“ETRS”) requires all stations to register by August 26, filling out what is referred to as Form One in that system. The FCC Public Notice announcing the new filing requirement is available here. More information about the form and a link to the Registration Page for the form are available on the FCC’s website, here. I have been told that this form can be tricky to complete, and can’t necessarily be completed in a few minutes, so don’t wait for the last day to try to get this done. After the last national EAS test, there were complaints that the FCC’s reporting system was inadequate, as it did not allow the FCC to easily assess whether all stations had reported on the results of the test, and to otherwise work with the data submitted. This form is meant to resolve some of those issues.
August will also likely bring the start of the forward portion of the incentive auction, when wireless companies bid for the spectrum that TV stations agreed to surrender in the reverse auction, which ended in June. It is unlikely that the bidding will end in August. The cumulative amount promised to broadcasters to surrender their spectrum raised questions as to whether there will be enough money bid by wireless users to cover all of the reverse auction commitments and the associated costs of the auction. So, it is possible that there will have to be another “stage” of the auction, where the FCC will pick up where it left off in the reverse auction, and try to clear less spectrum than in its initial attempt. These issues will likely play out over the several months. Until then, TV stations are still bound to keep information about their auction participation confidential. See our article here about the rules limiting communications about auction participation.
Reply comments are due on August 22 on the FCC’s proposals to get rid of the last remnants of the paper public inspection file – proposing to abolish the requirement that broadcasters maintain in their public file copies of letters from the public about station operations. We wrote about the FCC’s proposals, here. In initial comments, several public interest groups opposed the proposal to get rid of this requirement, contending that the letters from the public file was an important resource for the public to use to assess the performance of broadcast licensees. Most broadcasters tell me that their public files have not been visited at any time during their careers, and they may want to file reply comments addressing the contentions of these public interest groups.
As in any month, there are likely additional regulatory issues that arise for any station. So keep on top of all of your obligations while trying to enjoy the remainder of your summer.