biennial ownership report

Last week, we wrote about two of the three broadcast items to be considered at the FCC meeting on April 20. We wrote here about the draft order to restore the UHF discount, and here about the relaxation of the restrictions on fund-raising for third parties by noncommercial stations. The third item, also related to noncommercial licensees, is the resolution of the long-simmering dispute about whether or not to require that those individuals with attributable interests in noncommercial broadcast stations – officers and board members – to provide their Social Security Numbers or other personal information to the FCC to obtain an FCC Registration Number – an FRN. The draft order released last week indicates that the FCC will eliminate that requirement at its April 20 meeting.

The obligation to obtain an FRN was adopted so that the FCC could comprehensively track the ownership of broadcast stations, and determine the interests of individual parties across the broadcast media nationwide. This was principally done for purposes of assessing the diversity of ownership of the media – including by minorities and women. By making each attributable owner get their own FRN, interests across the broadcast media landscape could be tracked with greater precision. However, objections were raised when the FCC proposed to apply this obligation to noncommercial broadcasters, requiring that officers and board members provide their Social Security Number or other personal information to obtain an FRN. Despite these objections, the previous Commission ordered noncommercial broadcasters to provide this information, going so far as to suggest that attributable interest holders who did not provide the information necessary to obtain an FRN could be sanctioned. See our articles here and here. The current FCC under Chairman Pai rescinded the decision of the Media Bureau upholding the obligation (see our post here) – leading to the draft order to be considered at the April 20 meeting.
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With the change in administration at the FCC, there are opportunities for certain actions to be taken very quickly, without going through the full process of a rulemaking requiring public notice of the proposed rule change and time for public comment.  At the end of this last week, we saw the FCC’s Media Bureau take actions in three different proceedings directly applicable to broadcasters to undo what had been done during the prior administration – rescinding actions with respect to noncommercial ownership reports, the disclosure of information about the sponsor of political advertisements, and on the treatment of TV assignment and transfer applications for television stations where shared service agreements are involved.  Below, we’ll give a few details about each of those actions.

Two of the rescinded actions were January rulings by the Media Bureau which, at the time they were issued, drew statements of concern from then-Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly.  The Republican Commissioners argued that the actions should have been taken by the full Commission, not the Media Bureau.  As these decisions were not final (appeals can be taken or reconsideration requests can be filed within 30 days of an action, and the full Commission, on its own, can set aside a staff action within 40 days), the Media Bureau, presumably at the urging of the new Chairman, set these actions aside for further consideration by the full Commission.


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A bill was introduced in Congress this week (see press release here) proposing to roll back the FCC’s requirement that noncommercial broadcasters, in connection with the Biennial Ownership Reports that are due by December 1 of this year, get an FCC Registration Number for every person who has an attributable interest in a noncommercial

The FCC’s Media Bureau yesterday issued an order denying reconsideration of the full Commission decision from last year, synchronizing the Biennial Ownership Report filing requirement for noncommercial broadcasters with that of commercial broadcasters, and requiring that all individuals who have attributable interests in these stations obtain an FCC Registration Number (an “FRN”)(see our summary of the FCC order from last year here). Yesterday’s decision triggered a rapid objection from the Commission’s Republican Commissioners, promising to review this decision after the Inauguration when Republicans will likely control the FCC. What is the controversy?

Obtaining an FRN requires supplying the FCC with an individual’s Social Security Number (“SSN”). Last year’s order also provided that stations could obtain a “Restricted Use FRN” for attributable interest holders who did not want to provide their SSN to the FCC, but such individuals would still have to provide at least the last 4 digits of their SSN, along with other specifically identifiable information including their residence address and date of birth. While none of this information is public (it is merely stored in FCC databases that issue the FRN), many noncommercial licensees objected to the requirements, believing that members of their governing boards, who are considered attributable owners for FCC purposes, may be very reluctant to provide that information to stations or the FCC. They pointed particularly to situations like university or other stations operated by educational institutions, where board members volunteer not because they are interested in broadcasting, but instead because they hope to influence the educational objectives of the university. The fear is that having to provide this information could discourage people from serving on these governing boards of educational and similar institutions. In some cases, noncommercial station board members have no real choice about their service – the position is required by virtue of public posts such as university president or school superintendent. See our summary here of those objections.
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In the last year, noncommercial broadcast stations, both radio and TV, have been filing their Biennial Ownership Reports on FCC Form 323-E every other year, on the anniversary date of the filing of their license renewal applications.  This meant that, every other month noncommercial stations in a few states had to submit those reports, with the radio stations in a state submitting them one year and the TV stations in that state the next (as the renewal terms for radio and TV are off by one year, so are the even anniversary dates of the renewal filings).  Last year, as we wrote here, the FCC decided that all noncommercial stations, both radio and TV, would file their Biennial Ownership Reports on December 1 of every odd-numbered year – at the same time as commercial radio stations file their Biennial Ownership Reports.  But, until this week, the FCC had not suspended the requirement that the noncommercial stations continue to file on the anniversary date of the due date for their renewal application, as the new rule mandating the uniform December 1 filing had not yet become effective.  The FCC on Tuesday issued a Public Notice suspending the anniversary date filings in 2017 – but all noncommercial broadcasters still will need to file a report next year – by the uniform December 1 filing deadline.

The new rule has not become fully effective because it is being appealed by certain noncommercial groups worried about the new information required for the Biennial Reports, requiring all officers and directors (or their equivalents) to get FCC Registration Numbers (FRNs), which requires that they either submit to the FCC their Social Security Numbers or, in the alternative, certain specific personal information that uniquely identifies those people.  See our post here for more details on the required information.  Even though this information is submitted confidentially to the FCC merely for purposes of obtaining the FRN, there is the fear that some of these attributable owners will be reluctant to provide that information to the FCC.  This is especially true for universities and other government-owned broadcast stations, where the attributable owners are the governing board of the school or other institution.  These members who need to be reported to the FCC are often important people in a state or community, who signed up to be on the board of the school or other institution, not specifically to be connected to a radio or TV station.  In many cases, the broadcast station may be a very insignificant part of their responsibilities.  To avoid annoying these board members, the appeal of that information collection requirement has been filed. 
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Another month has started – and it is one with regulatory dates for broadcasters. All broadcasters, commercial and noncommercial, have an obligation to complete their Quarterly Issues Programs lists and place them into their public inspection filed by October 10. For TV stations and large-market commercial radio, that means that these lists need to be in the online public file by that date (see our article here about the online public file for radio). For TV stations, the 10th also brings the obligation to submit Quarterly Children’s Television Reports on Form 398 to the FCC (as the 10th falls on a Federal holiday, you may be able to file on the 11th, but consult your legal advisor for details on that deadline).

For stations in Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Missouri, Oregon, Washington, American Samoa, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands that are part of employment units with 5 or more full-time employees (30 hours a week or more), EEO public inspection file reports should have been included in their public inspection file by October 1. For Radio Station Employment Units with 11 or more full-time employees in Iowa and Missouri and Television Employment Units with five or more full-time employees in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, Mid-Term EEO Reports on FCC Form 397 should also have been filed at the FCC by October 1. See our article here on the obligation to submit Mid-Term EEO Reports.
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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.
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While summer has just about arrived, FCC regulatory dates do not depart to the beach and leave the world behind.  Instead, there are a host of filing deadlines this month.  EEO Public Inspection file reports must, by June 1, be placed in the public inspection files of stations that are part of employment units with 5 or more full-time employees if the stations are located in the following states: Arizona, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia.  Radio stations in Michigan and Ohio that are part of employment units with 11 or more full-time employees need to also file an FCC Mid-Term EEO Report on FCC Form 397 (see our article on the Form 397 here).  TV stations with 5 or more employees also need to file that report if they are located in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia or the District of Columbia.

There are regular dates, too, for noncommercial stations in certain states when licensees must file their Biennial Ownership Reports on FCC Form 323E.  While these reports will eventually be filed on December 1 of odd-numbered years, at the same time as Biennial Ownership Reports of commercial stations, at this point the new rules have not yet gone into effect (see our articles here and here).  Thus, by June 1, the licensees of noncommercial radio stations in Michigan and Ohio and noncommercial TV stations in Arizona, Idaho, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia must file their Biennial Ownership Reports.
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The changes in the FCC’s rules for Biennial Ownership Reports on FCC Form 323 were today published in the Federal Register. That publication starts the 30 day clock for petitions for reconsideration or requests for appeal of that decision. We summarized the changes in the requirements here – changes that include putting noncommercial stations on the same schedule as commercial stations (filing on December 1 of odd-numbered years) and requiring that all licensees obtain, for every person or entity with an attributable interest, an FCC Registration Number (an “FRN”). To get an FRN, the licensee must either submit the Social Security number (“SSN”) of the person with an attributable interest (or the Taxpayer ID number if the interest holder is not an individual) or the last four digits of the SSN plus other identifying information (their full name, residence address and date of birth). The requirement for an FRN has triggered concern among many broadcasters, particularly those where licenses are held by a college or university.

Why? Some licensees fear that, even though the personal information necessary to get an FRN will not be made public, the submission of that information to the FCC may still somehow compromise the security or privacy of individuals with attributable interests. While the FCC assured licensees in its order that these concerns are overblown as the Commission says that it maintains information with a high level of security, there are still doubters. Nevertheless, the FCC has required that the FRN be obtained for all attributable interest holders, and threatened to take enforcement action against interest holders who refuse to comply. The FCC also identified for whom the information needs to be provided.
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In an order released last month which has not received much attention, the FCC clarified its requirements for the filing of Biennial Ownership Reports. Much of the order deals with fixes to the report itself that will, for the most part, make the completion of the report administratively easier in terms of the physical data that needs to be entered into the form. However, certain new information-collection requirements call for broadcasters – both commercial and noncommercial – to start gathering information now from their attributable owners, including members of their governing boards, in order to enable the completion of the forms when they are next due to be filed, on December 1, 2017. We earlier wrote here about the FCC’s proposals in this proceeding (including the dazzling use of acronyms for various kinds of identification numbers assigned to attributable owners).

One of the principal purposes of the Biennial Ownership Reports is to gather information about the ownership and control of broadcast stations that will allow the FCC to slice and dice that information to use it to make decisions about issues like minority ownership in broadcasting and the concentration of broadcast ownership and control. Thus, the Biennial Reports gather information about race and gender of those with attributable interests in broadcast stations, and also about the interests those interest holders have in other stations. As we have written before, there have been complaints from some who have tried to analyze the information collected in the Biennial Reports that the data cannot be easily manipulated, particularly to track the ownership and control of individuals across multiple companies. Partially, this was attributed by the FCC to the failure of applicants to be able to get from all of their attributable owners information necessary to obtain an FRN (FCC Registration Number). That FRN was to be used to uniquely identify each holder of an attributable interest and track those individuals or entities through all of their media interests. In the past, there had been concerns that some interest holders were reluctant to provide the information necessary to get an FRN. The FCC has tried to remedy some of those concerns, and backed up their remedy with a suggestion that they will sanction interest holders who fail to provide the required information.
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