public interest standard

The FCC requires each full-power broadcast station, commercial and noncommercial, to maintain a public inspection file.  Even though this is a longstanding FCC requirement, there are always questions about what goes into the file, and how long those materials must be retained.  The week before last, I conducted a webinar for about 20 state broadcast associations on the FCC’s public file requirements for broadcast stations.  The slides from that presentation, outlining the requirements for the file, and the required retention period for many of the documents that make up that file, are available here.

While many broadcasters wonder if the public file is really worth the time that it takes to maintain given the nonexistent traffic to view that file at most stations, the FCC has continued to insist on its importance – fining or otherwise sanctioning stations for missing or late filed documents.  See, for instance, this case admonishing a TV station for failing to get all of its documents into its online public file in a timely fashion (an admonishment is the equivalent of putting a demerit in the station’s permanent record that could be considered as a prior violation in assessing fines if the FCC finds the station in violation for some other offence).  Particularly at license renewal time, a complete public file can be crucial, as missing documents lead to big fines (see, for instance, our articles here and here), and failure to disclose those missing documents can lead to even more harsh penalties (see our article here).  So maintaining an accurate and complete public file is important.  Quarterly issues programs lists are often the most overlooked requirement.
Continue Reading The Care and Feeding of the Broadcast Public Inspection File – Requirements and Retention Periods, A Presentation on the Issues

Come the New Year, we all engage in speculation about what’s ahead in our chosen fields, so it’s time for us to look into our crystal ball to try to discern what Washington may have in store for broadcasters in 2009. With each new year, a new set of regulatory issues face the broadcaster from the powers-that-be in Washington. But this year, with a new Presidential administration, new chairs of the Congressional committees that regulate broadcasters, and with a new FCC on the way, the potential regulatory challenges may cause the broadcaster to look at the new year with more trepidation than usual. In a year when the digital television transition finally becomes a reality, and with a troubled economy and no election or Olympic dollars to ease the downturn, who wants to deal with new regulatory obstacles? Yet, there are potential changes that could affect virtually all phases of the broadcast operations for both radio and television stations – technical, programming, sales, and even the use of music – all of which may have a direct impact on a station’s bottom line that can’t be ignored. 

With the digital conversion, one would think that television broadcasters have all the technical issues that they need for 2009. But the FCC’s recent adoption of its “White Spaces” order, authorizing the operation of unlicensed wireless devices on the TV channels, insures that there will be other issues to watch. The White Spaces decision will likely be appealed. While the appeal is going on, the FCC will have to work on the details of the order’s implementation, including approving operators of the database that is supposed to list all the stations that the new wireless devices will have to protect, as well as “type accepting” the devices themselves, essentially certifying that the devices can do what their backers claim – knowing where they are through the use of geolocation technology, “sniffing” out signals to protect, and communicating with the database to avoid interference with local television, land mobile radio, and wireless microphone signals.


Continue Reading Gazing Into the Crystal Ball – The Outlook for Broadcast Regulation in 2009

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