It is not every year that the FCC seriously asks broadcasters for suggestions as to what rules it should abolish or modify, but that is exactly what the FCC is doing in its Modernization of Media Regulation proceeding (about which we wrote here and here). Comments due the week after next, on July 5, and broadcasters should accept the invitation and suggest rules that are ripe for repeal or amendment. I recently spoke at the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association’s annual convention and the broadcaster who chaired the association’s Federal legislative committee urged all broadcasters in attendance to register their ideas for reforms. That comment made me realize that many broadcasters may not be taking this invitation seriously.
The number of changes already made in broadcast regulations in the less than 6 months that Chairman Pai has headed the agency (e.g. reinstating the UHF discount, abolishing the requirements for letters from the public in the public file, allowing online recruitment to be the sole means of EEO wide dissemination of job openings, relaxing the location restrictions on FM translators for AM stations, relaxing the limitations on noncommercial fundraising, abolishing the obligation for noncommercial stations to report the social security numbers of their board members, the rescission of FCC enforcement actions for political violations, and the revocation of a policy statement against shared services agreements) demonstrate that this Commission is serious about deregulation. There has perhaps never been as real an opportunity as now to make your voice heard about the broadcast rules that should be relaxed as part of this proceeding. What rules should be examined by the FCC?
The proceeding does not cover multiple ownership rules, which are being considered in multiple other proceedings (see, e.g. our article on the UHF discount and our articles here and here on other ownership issues being considered). But that still leaves a plethora of broadcast rules that could be eliminated or trimmed. Some have suggested further reductions in EEO obligations (see our article here about some of the remaining obligations under those rules). Related rules requiring advertising nondiscrimination and nondiscrimination in the sale of broadcast stations have never resulted in any enforcement action by the FCC, and I find that their intent and meaning are not uniformly understood by either the regulated or the regulates. They might be ripe for action.
Some have suggested Children’s Television rules or rules mandating certain accessibility obligations could be paired back. Many of these obligations are imposed by statute, so the FCC cannot totally eliminate the obligations, but some interpretations as to how the statutes are implemented could be addressed by FCC action. Political broadcasting rules are in the same category – mandated by statute, so the FCC is limited in what they can do to change those rules.
There are lots of old policies that are on the books, often not addressed by statute or rule. For instance, the FCC has had a policy against the sale of a “bare license,” meaning that a seller of a station needs to be able to convey some identifiable other assets when selling a station. In many ways, the FCC has seemed to have moved away from that policy (for instance, by allowing the sale for profit of an unbuilt construction permit), but it has never officially reputed the policy. This might be a time to do so. Similarly, the FCC has a policy against taking a security interest in a broadcast license, which some have suggested scares away certain lenders who might otherwise be interested in providing financing for broadcast deals. From time to time in the past, attempts have been made to eliminate that policy. Perhaps this is the time to address this issue, too.
On the engineering side of things, the FCC’s rural radio policy seems to be one that prevents stations from making changes that could improve coverage and bring more competition into markets where the most people live. But that has been hindered by a policy preserving program choice in rural markets where it may not be economically supportable. Some FCC environmental requirements might also be ripe for review. Many other technical reporting and recordkeeping rules are also likely to be up for review.
But, before the FCC can make any such changes, someone needs to ask to alert the Commission of the need for change. Given the invitation to broadcasters to suggest rules that can be changed, and the deadline on July 5, this is your opportunity to be heard. Think about regulatory issues that your station has faced, and where rules make little sense in today’s competitive media marketplace, and make your suggestions by July 5.