online public inspection file

The FCC yesterday adopted an Order eliminating the requirement that broadcasters file with the Commission copies of certain contracts, agreements and other documents relating to ownership and control – instead relying on the obligations to either upload the documents to a station’s online public file, or to place a list of the documents in the

The FCC this week released its draft order proposing to eliminate the requirement that broadcasters file certain contracts relating to ownership and control with the Commission. Instead, the disclosure of these documents will be made simply by observing the current requirement that stations either (1) make those documents available in the station’s online public file, or (2) make available a list of the required documents in the online public file with the documents themselves provided within 7 days to anyone who requests them, including the FCC. Certain other clarifications about the disclosure of such documents were contained in the draft order, which is expected to be adopted at the FCC meeting on October 23.

Among the documents that are required to be in the public file are those showing the governance of the license entity (e.g., articles of incorporation and bylaws); options and other documents related to future ownership rights; joint sales and time brokerage agreements; and television network affiliation agreements.   In the draft order, the FCC requires that such documents be included in the online public file (either in full or by inclusion on the list) within 30 days of execution, or within 30 days of any amendment or other modification of the agreement. If only a list of the documents is provided in the file, all the information that is required on an Ownership Report, where such documents are listed, would be required – including the name of the parties involved and the execution and expiration dates of the agreements.
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For radio and television stations with 5 or more full-time employees located in Arizona, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia, June 1 brings the requirement that you upload to your online inspection file your Annual EEO Public Inspection File Report detailing your employment outreach efforts for job openings filled in the last year, as well as the supplemental efforts you have made to educate the community about broadcast employment or the training efforts undertaken to advance your employees skills. For TV stations that are part of Employment Units with five or more full-time employees and located in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, you also need to submit your EEO Form 397 Mid-Term Report. See our article here on the Mid-Term Report, and another here on an FCC proposal that could lead to the elimination of the filing of the form.

June 1 should also serve as a reminder to radio stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia that your license renewal will be filed a year from now, on or before June 1, 2019. So, if you have not done so already, you should be reviewing your online public inspection file to make sure that it is complete, and otherwise review your station operations in anticipation of that filing. We wrote about some of the issues of concern for the upcoming license renewal cycle in our article here. TV stations in those same states will start the TV renewal cycle two years from now.
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Starting June 1, 2019, just over a year from now, the next broadcast license renewal cycle will begin. By that date, radio stations in DC, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia must file their renewal applications. Every other month for the next 3 years will bring the filing of radio license renewals in another set of states. And television stations will begin their renewal cycle a year later (June 1, 2020). The FCC’s schedule for radio license renewals can be found here and here. For TV stations, the schedule of renewal filings by state is in the same – just one year later than for radio. Every eight years, broadcast stations have to seek the renewal of their licenses by the FCC by demonstrating their continuing qualifications to be a licensee, including showing that they have not had a history of FCC violations and that they have otherwise served the public interest.

We have already written several times about how, with all broadcasters – both radio and TV – now required to have an online public file, it is important for stations to make sure that those files are complete and are kept up to date on a regular basis (see our articles here, here and here). Given that the contents of the online public file can be viewed by anyone, anywhere, just by launching an Internet browser, we would expect more complaints about incomplete files, and more scrutiny by the FCC of the contents of files that rarely were subject to FCC review in the past. FCC staffers can review public file compliance from their offices or homes, and do not have to rely on the rare field inspection to discover a violation. Thus, stations should be reviewing the contents of their files now to be sure that they are ready for the scrutiny that they will receive in the upcoming renewal cycle. But that is not the only issue about which stations need to be concerned, as illustrated by a decision released by the FCC yesterday, deciding to hold an evidentiary hearing as to whether the license renewal of a broadcast station that had been silent much of the last license renewal term should be granted.
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The FCC yesterday issued an order granting 39 radio stations (almost all stations with very small staffs or those affected by recent hurricanes or otherwise non-operational) 60 days to comply with the requirement that all full-power radio stations complete the transition to the online public file by this past March 1. We wrote about

On Friday, the FCC issued a Public Notice announcing its first EEO audit of 2018. The Notice lists the almost 300 radio and television stations that will be subject to the review as well as the rules that apply to that audit. And those rules are somewhat new.  First, the notice itself was not sent by mail, but instead by email – the first time that email has been used to deliver the notice of an EEO audit.  Some broadcasters who received the email seemed surprised and wondered if the email really was an official FCC communication, so the FCC included verification methods in the letter including a link to the Public Notice.  So, if you are listed on the Public Notice, you are subject to the audit.

Second, the procedure for responding to the audit is different.  No longer does the broadcaster subject to the audit have to submit paper copies of all of its documents to the FCC through the FCC Secretary’s office.  Instead, the response will be filed in the station’s online public file.  The response must be uploaded to the online public file by April 12.  There, the FCC can review that response (as can anyone else anywhere, at any time, as long as they have an internet connection).  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 the outreach efforts.  Broadcasters subject to the audit should carefully review the audit letter to see the details of the filing.
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March is one of those months where without the Annual EEO Public File Reports that come up for different states every other month, or without the Quarterly Issues Programs List and Children’s Television Report obligations that arise following the end of every calendar quarter. But this March has two very significant deadlines right at the beginning of the month – Online Public Files for radio and Biennial Ownership Reports – that will impose obligations on most broadcasters.

For radio stations, March 1 is the deadline for activating your online public inspection file. While TV stations and larger radio clusters in the Top 50 markets have already made the conversion to the online public file, for radio stations in smaller markets, the requirement that your file be complete and active is Thursday. As we wrote here, there are a number of documents that each station should be uploading to their file before the deadline (including Quarterly Issues Programs Lists and, if a station is part of an employment unit with 5 or more full-time employees, Annual EEO Public Inspection File Reports). As the FCC-hosted online public file date-stamps every document entered into the file, and as the file can be reviewed by anyone at anytime from anywhere in the world, stations need to be sure that they are timely uploading these documents to the file, as who knows who may be watching your compliance with FCC requirements. And this is not the only big obligation for broadcasters coming up in March.
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At its meeting yesterday, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking suggesting the abolition of the EEO Mid-Term Report, FCC Form 397. That form is filed at the mid-point of the renewal term of TV stations with 5 or more full-time employees and radio clusters with 11 or more full-time employees (see our post here about the form). As the content of the report is principally made up of the broadcaster’s last two EEO Public Inspection File Reports, and those reports are available in a broadcasters online public inspection file (which should be in place for virtually all broadcast stations when the final radio stations covert to the online public file next week, see our post here), the FCC concluded that there is no real reason that these reports need to be separately submitted, and thus proposed its elimination.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking did suggest that there were issues on which comments would be appropriate. The one bit of information that would not be readily available without the filing of the Form 397 would be which TV stations have 5 full-time employees and which radio clusters have more than 11 full-timers. That is important as Congress required the mid-term review of the EEO performance of stations meeting these employment thresholds. So the FCC asks how that information should be tracked. It is also noteworthy that the FCC will continue to conduct the EEO mid-term review of stations meeting these employment thresholds even without the filing of the Form 397 reports.
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On a day when the rest of the country is thinking about chocolate and Champagne, many radio stations need to be considering the FCC requirement that their public inspection file be made available online in a system hosted by the FCC. From the calls I have received in the last few days, it appears

The FCC’s Audio Division yesterday issued “Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture” to five radio stations; all owned by Cumulus Licensing. Each of these notices proposed a fine (called a “forfeiture” in FCC-speak) of either $10,000 (here) or $12,000 (here, here, here and here), all for violations of the FCC public file rules. All of these stations, located in close proximity in eastern South Carolina, were missing numerous sets of Quarterly Issues Programs lists that should have been included in their public files in the last license renewal term. The stations voluntarily reported that the lists were missing in their license renewal applications filed in 2011. In clearing up these long-pending renewals, the FCC proposed to issue these fines – again emphasizing that even this deregulatory FCC does not hesitate to enforce the rules that remain on the books (see our previous warnings here and here).

The release of these proposed fines also sends a warning to broadcasters about to convert to the online public inspection file (as all radio stations will need to have their public file online by March 1 – see our discussion of the online public file here), that these reports will be able to be viewed by anyone, anywhere, to see if they have been prepared and timely placed into the stations online public file. Each document deposited in the public file is date-stamped as to when it was uploaded. So anyone trying to assess a station’s compliance with the public file rule can see whether the Quarterly Issues Programs list was uploaded to the file and whether the upload was timely – within 10 days of the end of each calendar quarter.
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