Earlier this year, the FCC eliminated the requirement that broadcasters maintain, in their public inspection files, copies of letters from the public about station operations (see our article summarizing that action here). One aspect of that rule change did not become immediately effective, as it was subject to review by the Office of Management
letters from the public
FCC’s Elimination of the Requirement that Letters From the Public be Kept in a Broadcaster’s Public Inspection File Effective Today
Today, the order eliminating the requirement that broadcasters maintain in a paper public inspection file copies of letters and emails to their stations about station operations becomes effective. While the FCC abolished the requirement back in January, one of the first deregulatory actions of the new Chairman (see our article on that decision here),…
FCC Votes to Abolish Requirement for Retaining Letters From the Public on Station Operations – First Step in Broadcast Deregulation?
The FCC on Tuesday voted to abolish the 44 year old requirement that commercial broadcast stations retain, in their public file, letters (and emails) from the public dealing with station operations (see the full Order here). As noted by the Commissioners in their comments at the FCC meeting (and as we suggested here and here when this proposal was first introduced), these documents were rarely if ever accessed by the public. Mirroring our comments from last year, the Commission noted that, in today’s world, where social media is where so many people take to comment on each broadcaster’s every action, and where the comments are open to all and preserved for posterity, the requirement for the retention of letters in a paper public file was felt to be no longer necessary. Plus, with the rest of the public file either already online or soon to go online when the last radio stations convert to the FCC-mandated online public file next year (see our articles here and here), the elimination of this requirement allows stations to have more security at the main studios as people can’t just show up unannounced to view the file, as required under the current rules. Note that this will change the rules only for commercial stations – noncommercial stations have never had the obligation to include letters from the public in their public inspection files.
Much of this was expected in light of the new deregulatory bent of the Commission. About the only issue that had not previously been highlighted was the associated elimination of the requirement for TV stations that they report letters from the public about violent programming in their license renewal applications. The statute requiring the disclosure of these letters applied only to letters which the FCC rules required to be retained by the station. As the FCC will no longer require those letters be retained, the FCC found that the need to report letters about violent programming was now moot – and instructed the Media Bureau to delete the requirement from the license renewal forms. Because the reporting requirement lacked any real purpose, since the FCC has never sanctioned a broadcaster for violent programming and likely has no jurisdiction to restrict such programming, the abolition seems to be nothing more than the elimination of an unnecessary paperwork burden on broadcasters.
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First Chance for New FCC to Deregulate – Abolition of Requirement to Maintain Public File of Letters from the Public About Broadcast Station Operations on January 31 Tentative Agenda
The FCC yesterday released its tentative agenda for its January meeting, to be held on January 31. This will be the first meeting of the post-Chairman Wheeler era, and the two Republican commissioners will be in the majority for the first time in 8 years. There is a single item on the tentative agenda…
And Then There Were Three – Chairman Wheeler to Step Down on Inauguration Day Leaving a Republican-Controlled FCC – What’s It Mean for Broadcasters?
After months of speculation, Chairman Wheeler today announced that he will step down from the FCC on Inauguration Day. Together with the Senate not confirming the renomination of Commissioner Rosenworcel (as the Senate is effectively on recess and not expected to return before the end of the term, her renomination will almost certainly not be approved in this session of Congress, meaning that she must step down when the Congress adjourns on January 3), that leaves three Commissioners on the FCC. Two are the current Republican commissioners – Pai and O’Rielly – and Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. What will that mean for broadcasters?
First, it is expected that one of the two Republicans will be named as Acting Chairman to set the agenda for the first few months of the Trump administration, until a permanent Chair is announced (and confirmed by the Senate, if that Chair is not one of the two current Republicans). These commissioners have been vocal in their dissents on several big issues for broadcasters – including the repeal of the UHF discount (about which we wrote earlier this week) and on other issues dealing with the ownership of television stations – including the decision to not repeal the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules, and the decision to reinstate the FCC’s ban on Joint Sales Agreements in TV unless they are done between stations that can be co-owned. We already speculated about these issues being on the Republican agenda soon after the election. What other issues are likely to be considered?
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August Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters – New Fees, EAS Registration Requirement, EEO Obligations and More
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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FCC Proposes to Eliminate Public File Obligations – No More Letters from the Public for Broadcasters, No Cable Headend Information for Cable Systems?
At its open meeting earlier this week, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing changes to the public file rules for both broadcasters and cable systems. For commercial broadcasters, the FCC proposed to eliminate the requirement that they include in their public file copies of letters and emails to the station concerning station operations. For cable systems, the FCC proposed to eliminate the obligation to include in their file documents disclosing the location of their headend. What do these proposals mean for broadcasters?
Most of the broadcaster focus has been on the proposal to delete the obligation that commercial broadcasters keep a correspondence folder in their public inspection file for letters and emails from the public commenting on the operation of the station (the requirement has never applied to noncommercial broadcasters). Those files are supposed to contain, in a physical file at their main studio, all of the correspondence that stations receive from viewers or listeners (allowing broadcasters to omit correspondence that listeners asked to be kept private, and correspondence that contains offensive material). For TV stations that have already converted to an online public file for all of their other public file documents, and for radio stations who will soon be doing so (see our posts here and here on the upcoming obligation of radio to convert to an online public file), these letters will be the only remnant of the public file that must still be maintained at the main studio. The FCC tentatively concluded that the obligation to keep these letters and emails was no longer necessary.
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FCC To Consider Abolition of Requirement that Broadcasters Maintain Letters From the Public in their Public Files – Moving Toward the End of the Physical Public File?
Yesterday, the FCC announced its agenda for its May open meeting to be held on May 25. Among the items on the agenda is a proposal to adopt a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking to abolish the obligation that broadcasters maintain in their public files copies of letters and emails from the general public about station operations. These letters are the last vestige of the physical public file for TV broadcasters who several years ago migrated the rest of their public file to an online system maintained by the FCC (see our summary of the TV online public file obligations here). The letters from the public were deemed too sensitive to put online, as they could reveal private information about the writers of those letters. Thus TV stations must still maintain a paper file at their main studio. Radio broadcasters too will soon be moving their public files online. In the order adopting the requirement for an online public file for radio (see our summary here), the FCC proposed that the same paper system for letters from the public be maintained. However, it did note that there were calls to abandon entirely the requirement to maintain these letters in a separate file, and promised to initiate this rulemaking to look at that issue.
Commissioner O’Rielly has been a major proponent of that change, tying the issue to one of the security of broadcast stations and personnel. In his concurring statement to the Online Public File order, he noted that the abolition of the requirement that broadcasters maintain these letters from the public would eliminate the need for many broadcasters to open their stations to all comers who enter on the pretext of inspecting the public file. In a blog post, he noted the need for security at broadcast stations. The recent events at Sinclair’s Baltimore TV station, where an individual with emotional or mental issues triggered a police shoot-out at the station, and last year’s tragedy involving the Roanoke TV crew, highlighted the very real threats to safety that broadcasters face every day. Minimizing these threats by removing one pretext for people to enter broadcast studios unchallenged is an important consideration in these deliberations.
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