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

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?

Yesterday’s New York Times featured an article on its Opinion/Editorial page written by FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, suggesting that enforcement of the public interest obligations of broadcaster become more stringent. Commissioner Copps suggested that broadcasters needed to have their responsiveness to the needs of their community scrutinized more closely, and more often. Among other actions, the Commissioner suggested that license renewal period for broadcasters be shortened from the current eight year term, to once every three years – as well as a host of more stringent and specific programming obligations. Coming on the heels of the FCC’s proposal in the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Digital Radio (see our summary, here) to explore the local service of broadcasters through a checklist public file report quantifying their public interest service, as well as mandating more local program origination and a greater local presence for stations, local service seems to have emerged as a major issue of concern that may be played out in FCC proceedings in this year leading up to the 2008 Presidential election.

The Copps proposal to shorten license renewal terms back to the three years, and to stiffen the renewal process, asks that the FCC return to a system that required broadcasters to spend significant sums of money on administrative matters that could have better gone to broadcast operations. And the sums that used to be spent on license renewal applications had minimal real impact on the public interest.   While from time to time, broadcasters did run into scrutiny at renewal time, the vast majority of broadcasters’ applications were reviewed in a perfunctory manner and renewed – just as they are today. And with the Commission’s depleted resources that are already stretched thin, it seems unlikely that its staff would be able to provide much greater scrutiny to renewal applications that are filed more than twice as often as they are currently – more than doubling the workload of the already overburdened Commission staff.


Continue Reading You Can Force A Broadcaster to Program, But You Can’t Make People Watch: Proposals for More License Renewal Obligations