programming obligations for broadcasters

When the FCC last month started a new proceeding to mandate an online public file for television stations, the Commission promised to soon initiate another proceeding to look into the need for a new form to document the public interest programming that TV stations provide.  The FCC today fulfilled that promise, and issued a Notice of Inquiry ("NOI") to start the process of adopting a new form for TV stations to complete to report on various categories of "public interest programming," however that might be defined.  In 2007, the FCC had adopted Form 355 to accomplish that task.  But, after an outcry from stations about the paperwork burden that the form would impose, the FCC never submitted it to the Office of Management and Budget for approval under the Paperwork Reduction Act, and thus the form never became effective.  The adoption of the Form 355 was vacated last month in the online public file proceeding.  But the Commission now proposes its return – in some fashion.  So what does the Commission now propose to require from TV stations to document their public interest programming?

First, the FCC asks a series of questions about how such a form should be structured, and how the information should be collected to be meaningful for those that want to analyze it, but not overly burdensome for the TV stations.   The Commission seems to conclude that the form is necessary – not even asking questions on that basic issue of whether to adopt a standardized form.  The NOI states:

We continue to believe that the use of a standardized disclosure form will facilitate access to information on how licensees are serving the public interest and will allow the public to play a more active role in helping a station meet its obligation to provide programming that addresses the community’s needs and interests

The Commission then goes on to discuss the Quarterly Programs Issues lists  ("QPIs") that are currently required to be placed in a station’s public file every three months – describing the issues that station management sees as important in the community and the programs that the station has broadcast to address those issues (see our most recent advisory on this obligation, here).  The Commission states that these quarterly reports should be replaced, as broadcasters have been uneven in their recordkeeping of such lists.  Of course, that may be because the FCC has never proscribed any specific form for these reports, nor specifically said what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in connection with such reports.  Seemingly, replacing one form with another (albeit a more complete, detailed new form) may well accomplish nothing if the new report does not have clear and unambiguous instructions – something never adopted for the Quarterly Reports.Continue Reading FCC Proposes New Form Requiring TV Broadcasters to Document their Public Interest Programming

In a speech given last week, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps called for a new regime to review the public interest performance of broadcasters – suggesting that license renewal become a more rigorous exercise for radio and television operators.  In his address called "Getting Media Right, A Call to Action", given to the Columbia University School of Journalism, Copps specifically suggested a "Public Value Test" for broadcasters when they file their license renewals.  If the broadcaster passes the test, the broadcaster would get a renewal.  If the broadcaster did not pass – if it does not show that it has "earned" the right to "use the people’s airways" – then the licensee would get a one year probation period to prove that it should keep its license.  If it does not improve, then the license would be taken and given to "someone who will use it to serve the public interest."

So what would this Public Value Test look like?  The Commissioner suggested that the following factors would be reviewed: 

  1. A Meaningful Commitment to News and Public Affairs Programming – an increased commitment to news, local public affairs, election debates and issues oriented programming would be reviewed according to some quantitative benchmarks.
  2. Enhanced Disclosure – requiring broadcasters to provide more information about their programming performance, on the Internet, as the Commissioner believes that information in the public file is "laughable", and also requiring that the FCC review that information at renewal time
  3. Political Advertising Disclosure – requiring more information about the sponsors of political ads
  4. Reflecting Diversity – looking to increase the gender, ethnic and racial ownership of broadcast stations
  5. Community Discovery – requiring that broadcasters be required to, in some formal way, communicate with their communities to determine local programming needs and the interests of various groups within a station’s community
  6. Local and independent programming – requiring that broadcasters provide more local and independent programming instead of "homogenized music and entertainment from huge conglomerates – the Commissioner suggesting 25% of local programming being dedicated to local and independent programs.  More local PSAs too.
  7. Public Safety – requiring that all broadcasters have a plan to address emergencies and be either staffed during all hours of operation or be otherwise able to respond immediately to any local emergency.

 What’s likely to happen to these proposals?Continue Reading FCC Commissioner Copps Calls For Stricter Broadcast Station License Renewal Standards – Could It Happen?