FCC Form 397 Mid-Term EEO Report

April, as we wrote last month, begins the start of the radio license renewal process, with stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia having to run on the 1st and 16th of the month public notices of the planned filing of their license renewals at the beginning of June.  As we also noted last month, April also brings a requirement that, by the 10th of the month, stations add to their online public file Quarterly Issues Programs Lists for the prior quarter, setting out the most important issues facing their communities in the prior quarter, and the programming that they aired to address those issues.  We have written about the importance of these quarterly reports to the FCC to show how you served the public interest and the fines that can be imposed at renewal time if the lists are not properly prepared and uploaded to the online public file.  So don’t forget the obligation this obligation that applies to all full-power stations (and Class A TV stations).  We expect that the FCC will be watching (and in fact already is, as evident from some of their recent warnings to stations)!

In addition, April 1 brings the obligation for radio and television stations in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas that are part of an Employment Unit with 5 or more full-time employees, to add to their online public inspection file their Annual EEO Public Inspection File Report.  This report documents the full-time employment openings at the station in the prior year, the recruitment sources used to fill those positions, and the non-vacancy specific outreach efforts (the menu options) that stations use to inform their community about broadcast job openings and the efforts they make to train their staffs to assume more involved roles at their stations.  TV stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware will also file with the FCC their Form 397 EEO Mid-Term Reports – likely the last mid-term reports to be filed as the FCC’s order abolishing these reports should become effective before the next such reports are due to be submitted (see our articles here and here on the FCC’s abolition of the Mid-Term Report and its continued enforcement of the EEO rules through EEO audits).
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On Friday, the FCC issued its first EEO audit of almost 300 radio and TV stations across the country (see the model audit letter and list of stations affected here), the day after announcing its intent to abolish the Form 397 EEO Mid-Term Report (see our articles here and here).  In the Order announcing the forthcoming abolition of the Mid-Term Report, the FCC also noted its intent to being a proceeding in the next 90 days to reexamine the effectiveness of its EEO program – signaling that EEO remains a priority of the FCC and that this audit should be taken very seriously.  While the FCC each year promises to audit 5% of all full-power broadcast stations, and this audit is likely but the first of a number of EEO audits for the coming year, this upcoming review of the effectiveness of the FCC’s EEO process highlights the continued importance of EEO enforcement to the FCC.

The response to the audit must be completed by April 1.  As the response (and the audit letter itself) must be uploaded to the public file, it can be reviewed not only by the FCC, but also by anyone else anywhere, at any time, as long as they have an internet connection.  The upcoming license renewal cycle adds to the importance of this audit, as a broadcaster does not want a recent compliance issue to headline the record the FCC will be reviewing with its license renewal (see our article here about the upcoming license renewal cycle).  The audit requires that the broadcaster submit their last two EEO Public File Reports (which should already be in the online public file) and backing data to support all of the outreach efforts listed on those public file reports.  Broadcasters subject to the audit should carefully review the audit letter to see the details of the filing.
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The FCC at its meeting yesterday adopted the two broadcast items that it was expected to consider (see our article on the agenda here) – one agreeing to eliminate the FCC Form 397 EEO Mid-Term Report and a second starting a proceeding to reexamine certain aspects of the criteria used to select the applications to be granted for new Noncommercial Educational radio and television and LPFM stations. We wrote about the draft order to abolish the Form 397 here, and the draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the noncommercial criteria here. We will post the final orders in these proceedings here when the FCC releases them – quite possibly later today (Update, 2/15/2019, 1:50 PM EST – the text of the NCE/LPFM NPRM is now available here; Update 2:30 PM EST – the text of the order that will eliminate the Form 397 is now available here).

The elimination of the Form 397 does not become effective immediately as it still needs to be published in the Federal Register and undergo Paperwork Reduction Act review. So TV stations in the northeast, who are due to file their mid-term reports in the coming months, will continue to have this obligation. The change will have no practical effect for more than 4 years, until the first mid-term after the upcoming license renewal cycle hits in June 2023 (see our article here on the start of the radio license renewal cycle in June 2019). The elimination of this report also does not have any substantive effect on the obligations of full-power broadcasters who are part of employment units with 5 or more full-time employees to widely dissemination information about their job openings and to engage in community outreach efforts (even if they have no job openings) to educate the public about employment opportunities in broadcasting and to train existing employees for more advanced positions. So this really is just the elimination of a paperwork burden.
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We typically publish our article about upcoming regulatory dates before the beginning of each month, but this month, the looming FCC shutdown and determining its effect on filing deadlines pushed back our schedule. As we wrote on Friday, the effect of the shutdown is now becoming clear – and it has the potential to put on hold a number of the FCC deadlines, including the filing of Quarterly Children’s Television Reports due on January 10 and the uploading of Quarterly Issues Programs lists, due to be added to station’s public inspection files on January 10. The FCC-hosted public inspection file database is offline, so those Quarterly Issues Programs lists can’t be uploaded unless the budget impasse is resolved this week. Certifications as to the compliance of TV stations with the commercial limits in children’s television programs would also be added to the public file by January 10 – if it is available for use by then. While these and other dates mentioned below may be put on hold, there are deadlines that broadcasters need to pay attention to that are unaffected by the Washington budget debate.

We note that the FCC’s CDBS and LMS databases are up and operating, though most filings will be considered to be submitted the day that the FCC reopens. As the databases are up and operating, many applications can be electronically filed – so TV stations might as well timely upload their Children’s Television Reports on schedule by January 10, to avoid any slow uploading that may result from overloading of the FCC’s system as the FCC reopens. Other FCC deadlines are unaffected by the shutdown – most notably, as we wrote on Friday, those that related to the repacking of the TV band following the TV incentive auction. The FCC has money to keep its auction activities operating so staff are working to keep the repacking on track. Deadlines coming up for the repacking include a January 10th deadline for stations affected by the repacking to file their Form 387 Transition Progress Report. Auction deadlines proceed whether or not the FCC is otherwise open for business.
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The beginning of a calendar quarter always brings numerous regulatory obligations, and October is one of those months with a particularly full set of obligations. All full-power broadcasters, commercial and noncommercial, must complete their Quarterly Issues Programs Lists and place these reports into their public inspection files by October 10. These reports are the FCC’s only official record of how a station served its community. They document the broadcaster’s assessment of the most important issues facing their communities, and the programming that they have broadcast to address those issues. Failing to complete these reports was the biggest source of fines during the last license renewal cycle – with fines of $10,000 or more common for stations missing numerous reports during the license renewal term (see, for example, our articles here, here and here). With the public inspection file for all TV stations now being online and the public file of large radio groups in major markets also already converted to being online, the timeliness of the completion of these reports and their inclusion in the public file can now be assessed by the FCC and anyone else who wants to complain about a station’s regulatory compliance (as documents added to the public file are date stamped as to their inclusion, and the FCC has used this stamp to assess station’s compliance in other areas, see our post here). All other radio stations will be converting to the online file by March 1, 2018 and will need to upload this quarter’s reports into the file by that date (along with all others back to your last license renewal, see our post here), meaning the reports they complete this quarter too can be scrutinized from afar. Thus, be sure that you complete this important requirement.

TV stations have the additional quarterly obligation of filing with the FCC by October 10 their Quarterly Children’s Television Reports, Form 398. These reports detail the educational and informational programming directed to children that the station broadcast in the prior quarter. These reports are used to assess the station’s compliance with the current obligation to broadcast at least 3 hours per channel of programming addressing the educational and informational needs of children aged 16 or younger. Late-filed Children’s Television Reports, too, were the source of many fines for TV broadcasters in the last renewal cycle (see, for instance, our articles here and here), so don’t forget this obligation and don’t be late in making the required filings. At the same time, TV stations should also include in their public file documentation showing that they have complied with the limitations on commercialization during children’s programming directed to children 12 and under.
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While there is a new administration in charge at the FCC, there are still those regular regulatory dates that broadcasters must face, as well as dates unique to pending proceedings that arise from time to time. Before we get to the February dates, we should remind broadcasters of those January 31 dates that they should be considering, including the deadline for signing up for the Interim License Agreement for those radio stations playing music represented by the new performing rights organization GMR (see our articles here and here). January 31 is also the deadline for payment of SoundExchange yearly minimum fees by webcasters (including broadcasters who stream their music on the Internet), as well as the date for comments to the House Judiciary Committee on the structure of the Copyright Office (see our article here) and with the Copyright Office on the qualifications for a new Register of Copyrights (see our article here).

With the start of February, there are routine regulatory dates for broadcasters dealing with EEO requirements. Commercial and Noncommercial Full-Power and Class A Television Stations and AM and FM Radio Stations in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, and Oklahoma that are part of an Employment Unit with 5 or more full-time employees, must place in their public file (or upload to their online file for TV and radio stations that have already converted) their EEO Public File Reports. Stations also need to put a link to the EEO Public File reports on the home page of their websites, if their station has a website (meaning they have to have a webpage for their most recent report if they have not converted to the online public file). For Radio Station Employment Units with 11 or more full-time employees in Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma and Television Employment Units with five or more full-time employees in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, FCC Mid-Term Reports on Form 397 must be submitted to the FCC by February 1. We wrote about FCC Mid-Term Reports here.
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December is one of those months when all commercial broadcasters have at least one FCC deadline, and there are also many other filing dates of which many broadcasters need to take note.  For all commercial broadcasters, Biennial Ownership Reports are due on December 2.  Hopefully, most broadcasters have already completed this filing obligation, as FCC electronic filing systems have been known to slow as a major deadline like this comes closer.  See our article here for more on the Biennial Ownership filing requirement that applies to all commercial broadcast stations.

Noncommercial stations are not yet subject to the uniform Biennial Ownership Report deadline (though the FCC has proposed that happen in the future, see our article here, a proceeding in which a decision could come soon).  But many noncommercial stations do have ownership report deadlines on December 1, as noncommercial reports continue to be due every two years, on even anniversaries of the filing of their license renewal applications.  Noncommercial Television Stations in Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota have to file their Biennial Ownership Reports by that date.  Noncommercial AM and FM Radio Stations in Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont also have the same deadline for their Biennial Ownership Reports. 
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October is one of those months where the regulatory stars align, when not only do broadcasters in many states have EEO Public File report obligations, but also Quarterly Issues Programs Lists need to be placed in the public files of all commercial and noncommercial stations, and Quarterly Children’s Television Reports need to be filed at the FCC and placed in the public files of television stations.  On top of these routine obligations, there are a number of actions likely to be taken by the FCC that may affect many segments of the broadcast industry.  So let’s look at some of the specifics.

First, by October 1, EEO public file reports should be placed in the public file of stations with 5 or more full-time employees, if those stations are located in the following states and territories: Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Missouri, Oregon, Washington, American Samoa, Guam, the Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands.  In addition to those obligations, radio stations that are part of employment units with 11 or more full-time employees and are located in the states of Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands must prepare and file with the FCC EEO Mid-Term Reports on FCC Form 397, submitting specifics of their employment practices in the last two years (through the submission of their Public File reports) as well as some additional information.  The Mid-Term report for those stations are due by October 1.  More information about these EEO obligations can be found in our article here.
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The FCC yesterday issued a Public Notice announcing its second EEO audit for 2015.  Letters to just over 100 radio (no TV stations were included in the current audit) went out on June 12 asking for evidence of their compliance with the FCC’s EEO rules.  Many of the stations included on this list appear to be noncommercial broadcasters. In yesterday’s notice, the FCC released the form audit letter and list of stations that will be audited. Responses from the audited stations are due to be filed at the FCC by July 27. Licensees should carefully review the list of affected stations contained in the Public Notice to see if any of their stations have been selected for the audit. Note that there are some blank pages included in the PDF version available at this link, so be sure to scroll through these blank pages to view the entire list of audited stations.

The Commission has pledged to audit 5% of all broadcast stations and cable systems each year to assure their compliance with the Commission’s EEO rules – including the requirements for wide dissemination of information about job openings and non-vacancy specific supplemental efforts to educate a station’s community about job opportunities in the media industry. We recently summarized the FCC EEO issues here, reminding broadcasters of the possibility of being audited. We also recently wrote about the start of the obligations for the filing of FCC Form 397 EEO Mid-Term Reports – which started this month for radio groups with more than 11 full-time employees and will extend to TV licensees with 5 or more full-time employees next year, and are filed on the 4th anniversary of the filing deadline for the station’s license renewal – which will give the FCC another chance to review station EEO performance.  
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June brings some standard obligations for broadcasters in a number of states with anniversaries of their license renewal filing, plus the return of an obligation that we have not seen in 4 years- the obligations of radio stations in certain states to file an FCC Form 397 Mid-Term EEO Report. In addition to these routine regulatory deadlines, comment dates on certain FCC proceedings, a new CALM Act deadline, and some decisions for which broadcasters should be watching are among the regulatory actions that we can expect this coming month.

First, let’s look at the standard recurring obligations. By June 1, Annual EEO Public Inspection File Reports need to be placed in the public inspection files (including the online files of TV stations) of stations that are part of a station employment unit with five or more full-time (30 hours per week) employees that are licensed to communities in these states: Arizona, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia.  As we wrote in more detail yesterday, June 1 also brings the obligation of radio stations that are part of employment units with 11 or more full-time employees, and are located in Maryland, DC, Virginia or West Virginia to file their Form 397, EEO Mid-Term Report. Every other month for the next four years we will see a similar obligation arise for a group of radio or TV stations in states that have celebrated the 4th anniversary of the filing of their license renewal applications.
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