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.