The FCC this week published a Small Business Compliance Guide for companies looking to take advantage of the FCC’s elimination of the main studio rules and the studio staffing requirements associated with those rules (see our articles here and here summarizing the rule changes). The Compliance Guide points out that stations looking to eliminate their main studios still must maintain a local toll-free telephone number where residents of the community served by the station can call to ask questions or provide information to the licensee. The Guide also references the requirement that access to the public file must be maintained. While, by March 1, all broadcast stations (unless they have obtained a waiver) will have their public files online (see our article here), it is possible that some stations may have a remnant of their file still in paper even after the conversion date. “Old political documents” (documents dealing with advertising sales to candidates, other candidate “uses,” and issue advertising) that were created before the date that a station activates its online file for public viewing need not be uploaded but can be kept in a paper file for the relevant holding period (generally two years). If the station decides not to upload those old political documents, or closes its main studio before they have gone live with their online public file, they will need to maintain a paper file in their community of license. The Guide also mentions how Class A TV stations, which are required to show that they originate programming from their local service area, will be treated since they will no longer have a legally mandated main studio. But are there questions that the Guide does not address?
We think that there are, and that broadcasters who are considering doing away with their main studio need to consider numerous other matters. First, and most importantly, the obligation for a station to serve its local community with public interest programming remains on the books. So stations need to be sure that they are staying in touch with the local issues facing their communities, and they need to address those issues in their local programming. Addressing these issues needs to be documented in Quarterly Issues Programs lists which are the only legally-mandated documents that demonstrate how a station has served its community. There are other issues to consider as well.
Stations need to notify the FCC if they are being controlled from a location other than their transmitter or main studio locations. So, if there is no main studio, and no one is physically at the transmitter site, the FCC needs to be notified of the remote control location for the station.
EAS still needs to be monitored for the local area served by the station so the station can originate and rebroadcast required EAS tests, and respond in the event of a real emergency. The station still is required to have a chief operator designated in writing, and that operator must routinely review station logs and certify certain operational requirements for the station, including the monitoring of tower lights. A station log needs to be maintained and produced when requested by the FCC – containing information about EAS tests, tower light monitoring, and any deviations in operation of the station from the authorized parameters specified by the station license.
Obviously, stations also need to monitor and respond, if appropriate, to complaints about their operations, particularly technical complaints about the station not operating in compliance with its licensed facilities. And they need to be ready to respond to requests for political advertising time from local candidates, especially Federal candidates, because all commercial stations have an obligation to give Federal candidates reasonable access to all classes and dayparts of time on a station – even if that station has no local studio or local employees.
There are certainly may be other issues that are not on this list. But this list makes clear that a licensee can’t just close its main studio and get rid of all of its local employees and ignore its community. There are still has many FCC obligations that require licensees keep in touch with what is going on at their stations and in their local service areas. So discuss these issues with counsel and engineering consultants to make sure that you won’t miss anything when taking advantage of these rule changes.