The FCC has set the date for comments on the proposal for television stations to maintain an online public inspection file, including an online political file (see Federal Register notice here).  Comments are due on December 22.  Replies are due on January 6.  Happy Holidays from the FCC!  We summarized the FCC’s proposals here and here.  While the proposed new rules will relieve stations from the burden of hosting the files themselves (as the FCC is proposing to host all of the files on its own servers), it still requires that stations upload their information – including all information that is put in their political file, into a new electronic reporting system to be devised by the FCC.  As we described in detail in our summary of the proposal for the online public file, the FCC is asking whether certain new public file obligations should be added to those currently in place.  These include possible posting of comments on programming that come from the station’s social media efforts in addition to the letters and emails currently required; a proposed requirement to place in the public file information about sponsorship identification of all "pay for play" material that is broadcast on a station (currently only broadcast, not kept in any paper form); a requirement to provide information about shared services agreements and the programming that they provide to a station; and a requirement that all information about fines and other enforcement actions taken against a station be posted to the online file.  So how much does the FCC think that this will cost stations?

As we wrote yesterday, in adopting rules, the FCC is currently bound by the Paperwork Reduction and the Regulatory Flexibility Acts, both of which require some assessment of the impact of new regulations, particularly on small businesses.  In the Federal Register publication, the FCC’s assessment of the regulatory burden of these proposed new obligations is broken down into several pieces.  The burden for the new online public file requirement, including the posting of the political file, is set forth as follows:

Respondents/Affected Parties: Business or other for-profit entities; Not for-profit institutions; Individuals or households

Number of Respondents and Responses: 25,422 respondents; 59,833 responses

Estimated Time per Response: 1 to 104 hours.

Frequency of Response: On occasion reporting requirement; Recordkeeping requirement; Third party disclosure requirement

 Obligation To Respond: Required to obtain or retain benefits. The statutory authority for this collection of information is contained in 47 U.S.C 151, 152, 154(i), 303, 307 and 308

Total Annual Burden: 2,158,909 hours

 Total Annual Costs: $801,150.00

Stations should look at and evaluate these numbers as part of their response, as the FCC has invited a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed new rules.  How is it that the FCC assumes that the regulatory burden would be over 2 million hours, but that the costs would be less than a million dollars?  How will this work be done and paid for?  It is also interested in that the number of respondents is listed as 25,422.  As there are only 1,782 full-power television stations and about 450 Class A stations according to the last FCC Report on station totals, who else is expected to report on this form?  The FCC, in its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, specifically exempted radio from the obligations for an online public file – at least for the time being.


Continue Reading December 22 Comment Deadline Set for FCC Proposal for Online Public Inspection File for TV – What is the Regulatory Burden?

What will be the issues that broadcasters need to be concerned about in next year’s Media Ownership proceeding?  To get a clue, broadcasters should watch and listen to the second day of the FCC workshop on multiple ownership, featuring members of various public interest groups in Washington the week before last (watch it on the FCC website, here).  These workshops, as we wrote here, were held to start the process on the Commission’s upcoming Quadrennial Review of the multiple ownership rules.   The representatives who testified on this panel discussed the issues that they thought should be reviewed, and facts that they thought should be collected, in order for the Commission to successfully complete the ownership review required by Congress.  As these Washington "insiders" are sure to be the ones filing comments in the proceeding and lobbying the Commission on the issues, the agenda of these organizations are likely to set the grounds for debate in the upcoming proceeding.  From watching this hearing, there are bound to be a number of contentious issues that will come up.

The panel was made up of representatives of five different Washington public interest groups – four that tend to favor more regulation and less consolidation.  The representative of the fifth organization, suggesting just the opposite – that in the new media world, little or no media ownership regulation is necessary.  While much of the discussion was process-oriented, there was discussion of specific issues that might come up in the review.  Both the process – which included extensive discussion of the need for detailed industry information for informed regulation to take place – and the substance could cause problems for broadcasters.  Substantive issues discussed included the need for more scrutiny of shared services agreements in the television world (as some saw these as a way of evading the FCC ownership regulations), and for ways to insure that there is more local programming as part of the process. One representative also mentioned the need to review noncommercial broadcasting as part of the ownership proceeding – which is usually restricted to a review of commercial operations.


Continue Reading Multiple Ownership Workshops Start to Identify Issues for Quadrennial Review – Shared Services Agreements and Local Origination To Be Focus of Public Interest Groups

As the Obama administration fills its top level government posts, all eyes are now turning to the next levels of government appointments which, at some point, will include a new Chair of the FCC and potentially other new FCC Commissioners. We wrote about our hopes for an Obama administration at the FCC immediately after the election, and now other voices in Washington are weighing in. And, as one might expect, with so many different perspectives, the advice is far from consistent. As we wrote in our analysis, the appointment of the FCC Chair is crucial as it is the FCC Chair, far more than the President or the White House, who sets the tone for Communications policy. This is made clear by the extensive regulations either adopted or proposed for broadcasters by the current Republican FCC, seemingly at the direction of the current chairman, regulations that would not have been expected from a Republican administration.  In light of the economic challenges facing broadcasters, as evidenced by today’s news that two television companies – Tribune and Equity – declared bankruptcy, and another, NBC, has announced a cut back in prime time programming, replacing it with a prime time, 5 day a week Jay Leno program. 

So what should the transition team look to accomplish at the FCC?  In one of the most perceptive articles that I’ve seen recently, Harry Jessell in TV Newsday has urged the new Commission to simply do nothing on broadcast regulation for the next year. The current state of the economy and its ramifications for the advertising that is the lifeblood of the broadcast industry simply leaves no room for broadcasters to have to bear new costs for new regulations.  Broadcasting and Cable magazine has echoed that sentiment last week.  Recently, not only have we seen the economy and the state of the broadcast industry been reflected by the actions announced by Tribune, Equity and NBC today, but we’ve seen numerous mainstream press articles about the economic peril in which the entire broadcast industry finds itself.  In one recent article, radio’s dramatic decline in revenues was highlighted, even as the industry’s listenership remains high (as confirmed by BIA’s recent prediction that radio revenues will decline by 7% in the coming year, coming after declines this year – perhaps the first two year decline in revenues in radio history). I recently attended the Radio Ink Forecast 2009 conference in New York.   While the conference is off the record, I don’t think that I’d be betraying any confidences to state that there was much concern about the short term health of the radio industry. 


Continue Reading As the FCC Transition Progresses, The Broadcast Industry Shows Economic Strains – Tribune and Equity Declare Bankruptcy and NBC Cuts Programming Costs By Putting Leno on at 10 PM, Five Days A Week

Last week, the Office of Management and Budget determined that the FCC’s new rules on Leased Access to cable channels (see our bulletin describing those rules) violated the Paperwork Reduction Act. This means that the new rules, which would have significantly lowered the cost for parties who wanted to lease cable channels to provide their own programming, will be sent back to the FCC for further consideration.  These rules are also on appeal to the Courts, which had stayed the effectiveness of the rules while the appeal is being considered, which is usually a good indication that the Court had issues with the rules as well.  The OMB action has the effect of returning the rules back to the FCC to be considered anew in light of the OMB findings.  Our firm has prepared a memo detailing the decision, here.  Given the OMB decision that these rules imposed too great a burden on cable systems, one wonders if this decision portends a similar result when the OMB reviews the FCC’s rules on Enhanced Disclosure and an on-line public inspection file – rules that would impose a significant burden on television broadcasters (about which we wrote here).

The OMB decision on the leased access rules highlighted some of the perceived shortcomings of the FCC decision, including that the FCC had not shown that they had taken steps to minimize the burden on companies who would have to hire staff to comply with the new rules, and they had not provided reasons why reduced timeframes for responses to requests for leased access were necessary.  Looking at these standards, one would have to think that much of the same reasoning would apply to the FCC’s Enhanced Disclosure requirements for TV stations as set out in the new Form 355.  The completion of the Form would clearly require the hiring of new staff.  We’ve also questioned whether the Commission has given any justification for the increased paperwork requirements, as the information itself has no regulatory purpose as the FCC has not adopted any quantitative standards for public interest programming.  With no purpose and increased costs, how could the OMB treat the enhanced disclosure requirements differently than it did the leased access requirements?


Continue Reading OMB Throws Out Leased Access Rules as Violation of Paperwork Reduction Act – Will TV Enhanced Disclosure Be Next?

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?