The FCC Form 355 requiring "enhanced disclosure" by television stations was a frequent topic of discussion at this week’s NAB Convention in Las Vegas.  That form will require that television broadcasters report significant, detailed information about their programming, providing very detailed reports of the percentage of programming that they devote to news, public affairs, election programming, local programming, PSAs, independently produced programs and various other program categories, as well as specifics of each program that fits into these categories (see our detailed description of the requirements here).  Obviously, all broadcasters were concerned about how they would deal with the expense and time necessary to complete the forms, and the potential for complaints about the programming that such reports will generate.  At legal sessions by the American Bar Association Forum on Communications Law and the Federal Communications Bar Association, held in connection with the NAB Convention, it became very clear to me that the obligations imposed by these new rules are obligations adopted for absolutely no reason, as the Commission has not adopted any rules mandating specific amounts of the types of programming reported on the form.  In fact, one of the Commissioner’s legal assistants confirmed that, unless and until the FCC adopts such specific programming requirements, the Commission’s staff will not need to spend any time processing these forms.  Thus, if the form goes into effect, broadcasters will be forced to keep these records, and expend significant amounts of staff time and station resources necessary to complete the forms, for essentially no purpose.

Of course, public interest advocates will argue that the forms will allow the Commission to assess the station’s operation in the public interest, and will allow the public to complain about failures of stations to serve local needs.  But, as in a recent license renewal case we wrote about here, the Commission rejected a Petition to Deny against a station based on its alleged failure to do much local public affairs programming as, without specific quantitative program requirements, the Commission cannot punish a station for not doing specific amounts of particular programming. If the Commission adheres to this precedent, it will not be able to fine stations for the information that they put on the Form 355, but only for not filing it or not completing it accurately.  Thus, unless the Commission adopts specific programming requirements, the form will be nothing more than a paperwork trap for the unwary or overburdened broadcaster.  And, as is usually the case with such obligations, the burden will fall hardest on the small broadcaster who does not the staff and resources to devote to otherwise unnecessary paperwork.


Continue Reading FCC Form 355 – A Form Without a Reason?

The FCC has released the full text of its Order adopting enhanced disclosure requirements for broadcast television stations – requiring that they post their public files on their websites and that they quarterly file a new form, FCC Form 355, detailing their programming in minute detail, breaking it down by specific program categories, and certifying that the station has complied with a number of FCC programming rules.  The Commission also released the new form itself and, as detailed below, the form will require a significant effort for broadcasters to document their programming efforts – probably requiring dedicated employees just to gather the necessary information.  The degree of detail required is more substantial than that ever required of broadcasters – far more detailed than the information broadcasters were required to gather prior to the deregulation of the 1980s – though, for the time being, much (though not all) of the information is not tied to any specific programming obligations set by the FCC.

 Before getting to the specifics of the new requirements, the thoughts of the Commission in adopting this order should be considered.  The Commission’s decision focuses on its desire to increase the amount of citizen participation in the operation of television stations and the decisions that they make on programming matters.  While many broadcasters protested that the public rarely cared about the details of their operations, as evidenced by the fact that their public files were rarely if ever inspected, the Commission suggested that this was perhaps due to the difficulty the public had in seeing those files (the public actually had to go to the station to look at the file) and the lack of knowledge of the existence of the files (though broadcasters routinely broadcast notice of the public file’s existence during the processing of their license renewal applications, rarely producing any viewers visiting the station to view the file).  With respect to the new Form 355 detailing the station’s programming, the Commission rejected arguments that reporting of specific types of programming in excruciating detail imposes any First Amendment burden on stations, as the Commission claims that it has imposed no new substantive requirements.  Yet the Commission cites its desires that the public become more involved in the scrutinizing of the programming of television stations, which it states will be aided by the new form, and also emphasizes the importance that the Commission places on local service (an item detailed in Form 355).  At the same time, in its proposals detailed in its Localism proceeding (summarized here), the Commission is proposing rules requiring specific amounts of the very programming that is reported on Form 355, the very numbers that, in this proceeding, it claims have no significance.  Moreover, citizens will be encouraged by the Commission’s actions to scrutinize the new reports, and file complaints based on the perceived shortcomings of the broadcaster’s programming.  Broadcasters in turn will feel pressured to air programming that will head off these complaints.  So, implicitly, the Commission has created the First Amendment chilling effect that it claims to have avoided.


Continue Reading FCC Releases Rules for Enhanced TV Disclosure Requirements

As we wrote earlier this week, the FCC is to consider at its meeting next Tuesday a Report on the results of its "Localism" proceeding, and a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking public comment on the findings contained in the Report.  From rumors going around Washington today, that Notice may ask for comments on tentative findings that would roll back of much of the broadcast deregulation of the last 25 years.   Rumors are that the Commission will be issuing "tentative conclusions" determining that the FCC should re-impose specific ascertainment requirements of some sort (requiring that broadcasters regularly meet with specific types of community leaders to get their input on station programming).  Also, the Commission will tentatively conclude that there should be quantitative programming requirements – that each station do a specific amount of local programming and perhaps specific amounts of news, public affairs other types of programs each week. If a licensee does not meet the requirements, the station’s license renewal application would not be granted routinely by the FCC’s staff, but instead would be subject to an additional level of scrutiny by the full Commission. The Commission is also apparently proposing that it return to the old rules that all stations have a manned main studio during all hours of operation. There is reportedly also a proposal that stations report to the FCC about how they decide what music they play.

Staring in the early 1980s, the FCC did away with many of the specific, detailed programming requirements that had previously bound broadcasters.  These requirements were quite burdensome, especially for small stations and stations in small markets with limited staffs.  Rather than spending their time on broadcast operations, station staff had to make sure that their operations met programming standards imposed from Washington, dictating the government’s ideas of what was good for the station’s audience, even if the station might feel, because of its format or the demographics of its audience that a particular type of programming did not serve the needs of its community.  In the mid-1980s, the FCC concluded that these rules were no longer necessary, as it was concluded that there was enough media diversity that the marketplace would dictate that broadcasters serve their audiences with appropriate content that met the needs of that audience as, if they did not, some other broadcaster would.  The economic incentive of the fear of the loss of audience to a competitor who better served the public was deemed enough to insure that the broadcaster acted responsibly.
.


Continue Reading Moving Forward Back to 1980 – The FCC Set to Conclude that Specific Public Interest Obigations are Required for Broadcasters

The FCC, after taking two years off, is looking to finish their field hearings on Localism by scheduling a hearing in Portland, Maine on June 29.  This hearing is not one of the six hearings to discuss possible new multiple ownership rules, but instead a continuation of the hearings started by Chairman Powell after public controversy over the 2003 multiple ownership rules.  In an ironic twist of fate, this public notice was released on the Friday before the National Association of Broadcasters Educational Foundation hosts their Service to America Awards Dinner to honor broadcasters and the public service commitment that they have to their communities.  Thus, while the FCC is looking in the hinterlands for evidence of the responsiveness of the broadcast industry to the needs of their listeners, some of the best evidence of that service was on display some 12 blocks from the FCC’s headquarters.

The Localism hearings were part of a larger proceeding begun in response to the controversy after the 2003 multiple ownership rules.  When the Democratic Commissioners, Congressional legislators from both parties, and a variety of citizen’s groups from across the political spectrum complained about how the public’s input was not sought before the rules were adopted, the FCC tried to respond to some of those complaints by putting out a Notice of Inquiry on Localism.  The proceeding was to assess how well broadcasters were serving their communities, and the Notice asked for public comment on a grab bag of issues including the following:

  • whether a broadcaster’s public interest obligations should be quantified (bringing back obligations abolished in the 1980s that required specific amounts of the programming of broadcast stations to be devoted to news and public affairs programming), 
  • should broadcasters be required to play specific amounts of local music,
  • is payola a major issue,
  • whether more programming should be devoted to political campaigns
  • whether the voices of minorities were being heard on the airwaves.
  • if the FCC should authorize more LPFM stations and take other steps to make airtime available to new entrants


Continue Reading Another Localism Hearing and Service to America