social security numbers for FCC ownership reports

Last week, we wrote about two of the three broadcast items to be considered at the FCC meeting on April 20. We wrote here about the draft order to restore the UHF discount, and here about the relaxation of the restrictions on fund-raising for third parties by noncommercial stations. The third item, also related to noncommercial licensees, is the resolution of the long-simmering dispute about whether or not to require that those individuals with attributable interests in noncommercial broadcast stations – officers and board members – to provide their Social Security Numbers or other personal information to the FCC to obtain an FCC Registration Number – an FRN. The draft order released last week indicates that the FCC will eliminate that requirement at its April 20 meeting.

The obligation to obtain an FRN was adopted so that the FCC could comprehensively track the ownership of broadcast stations, and determine the interests of individual parties across the broadcast media nationwide. This was principally done for purposes of assessing the diversity of ownership of the media – including by minorities and women. By making each attributable owner get their own FRN, interests across the broadcast media landscape could be tracked with greater precision. However, objections were raised when the FCC proposed to apply this obligation to noncommercial broadcasters, requiring that officers and board members provide their Social Security Number or other personal information to obtain an FRN. Despite these objections, the previous Commission ordered noncommercial broadcasters to provide this information, going so far as to suggest that attributable interest holders who did not provide the information necessary to obtain an FRN could be sanctioned. See our articles here and here. The current FCC under Chairman Pai rescinded the decision of the Media Bureau upholding the obligation (see our post here) – leading to the draft order to be considered at the April 20 meeting.
Continue Reading FCC to Eliminate Need for Social Security Numbers from Board Members of Noncommercial Licensees for Biennial Ownership Report

With the change in administration at the FCC, there are opportunities for certain actions to be taken very quickly, without going through the full process of a rulemaking requiring public notice of the proposed rule change and time for public comment.  At the end of this last week, we saw the FCC’s Media Bureau take actions in three different proceedings directly applicable to broadcasters to undo what had been done during the prior administration – rescinding actions with respect to noncommercial ownership reports, the disclosure of information about the sponsor of political advertisements, and on the treatment of TV assignment and transfer applications for television stations where shared service agreements are involved.  Below, we’ll give a few details about each of those actions.

Two of the rescinded actions were January rulings by the Media Bureau which, at the time they were issued, drew statements of concern from then-Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly.  The Republican Commissioners argued that the actions should have been taken by the full Commission, not the Media Bureau.  As these decisions were not final (appeals can be taken or reconsideration requests can be filed within 30 days of an action, and the full Commission, on its own, can set aside a staff action within 40 days), the Media Bureau, presumably at the urging of the new Chairman, set these actions aside for further consideration by the full Commission.Continue Reading Undoing the Past – New FCC Rescinds Rulings on Noncommercial Ownership Reports, Political Broadcasting Sponsorship Disclosure and Shared Services Agreements

A bill was introduced in Congress this week (see press release here) proposing to roll back the FCC’s requirement that noncommercial broadcasters, in connection with the Biennial Ownership Reports that are due by December 1 of this year, get an FCC Registration Number for every person who has an attributable interest in a noncommercial

The FCC’s Media Bureau yesterday issued an order denying reconsideration of the full Commission decision from last year, synchronizing the Biennial Ownership Report filing requirement for noncommercial broadcasters with that of commercial broadcasters, and requiring that all individuals who have attributable interests in these stations obtain an FCC Registration Number (an “FRN”)(see our summary of the FCC order from last year here). Yesterday’s decision triggered a rapid objection from the Commission’s Republican Commissioners, promising to review this decision after the Inauguration when Republicans will likely control the FCC. What is the controversy?

Obtaining an FRN requires supplying the FCC with an individual’s Social Security Number (“SSN”). Last year’s order also provided that stations could obtain a “Restricted Use FRN” for attributable interest holders who did not want to provide their SSN to the FCC, but such individuals would still have to provide at least the last 4 digits of their SSN, along with other specifically identifiable information including their residence address and date of birth. While none of this information is public (it is merely stored in FCC databases that issue the FRN), many noncommercial licensees objected to the requirements, believing that members of their governing boards, who are considered attributable owners for FCC purposes, may be very reluctant to provide that information to stations or the FCC. They pointed particularly to situations like university or other stations operated by educational institutions, where board members volunteer not because they are interested in broadcasting, but instead because they hope to influence the educational objectives of the university. The fear is that having to provide this information could discourage people from serving on these governing boards of educational and similar institutions. In some cases, noncommercial station board members have no real choice about their service – the position is required by virtue of public posts such as university president or school superintendent. See our summary here of those objections.
Continue Reading FCC Denies Reconsideration of Noncommercial Broadcasting Ownership Report Requirements – But Signs that New Commission May See Things Differently

In the last year, noncommercial broadcast stations, both radio and TV, have been filing their Biennial Ownership Reports on FCC Form 323-E every other year, on the anniversary date of the filing of their license renewal applications.  This meant that, every other month noncommercial stations in a few states had to submit those reports, with the radio stations in a state submitting them one year and the TV stations in that state the next (as the renewal terms for radio and TV are off by one year, so are the even anniversary dates of the renewal filings).  Last year, as we wrote here, the FCC decided that all noncommercial stations, both radio and TV, would file their Biennial Ownership Reports on December 1 of every odd-numbered year – at the same time as commercial radio stations file their Biennial Ownership Reports.  But, until this week, the FCC had not suspended the requirement that the noncommercial stations continue to file on the anniversary date of the due date for their renewal application, as the new rule mandating the uniform December 1 filing had not yet become effective.  The FCC on Tuesday issued a Public Notice suspending the anniversary date filings in 2017 – but all noncommercial broadcasters still will need to file a report next year – by the uniform December 1 filing deadline.

The new rule has not become fully effective because it is being appealed by certain noncommercial groups worried about the new information required for the Biennial Reports, requiring all officers and directors (or their equivalents) to get FCC Registration Numbers (FRNs), which requires that they either submit to the FCC their Social Security Numbers or, in the alternative, certain specific personal information that uniquely identifies those people.  See our post here for more details on the required information.  Even though this information is submitted confidentially to the FCC merely for purposes of obtaining the FRN, there is the fear that some of these attributable owners will be reluctant to provide that information to the FCC.  This is especially true for universities and other government-owned broadcast stations, where the attributable owners are the governing board of the school or other institution.  These members who need to be reported to the FCC are often important people in a state or community, who signed up to be on the board of the school or other institution, not specifically to be connected to a radio or TV station.  In many cases, the broadcast station may be a very insignificant part of their responsibilities.  To avoid annoying these board members, the appeal of that information collection requirement has been filed. 
Continue Reading FCC Suspends Rolling Noncommercial Biennial Ownership Report Deadlines – But All Noncommercial Stations to File Form 323-E by December 1, 2017

March is one of those rare months on the broadcast calendar when there are few routine regulatory deadlines for broadcasters. As we are winding down in the television license renewal cycle, the month’s only license renewal obligations for TV broadcasters are the pre-filing license renewal announcements on the 1st and 16th of the month for stations in Delaware and Pennsylvania, whose renewals are due on April 1, and the post-filing announcements for TV stations in New York and New Jersey. But there are still dates of interest to broadcasters in the month ahead. Here are some of those dates.

March also brings the obligation, by March 16 for TV stations to be in compliance with the Closed Captioning Quality Standards, which require that broadcasts assess and work to perfect the quality of the closed captioning carried on their stations. While the FCC is looking at bringing television program suppliers under these rules, as of now, the obligation for compliance with the rules is on the television broadcaster. We wrote about the captioning quality rules and the FCC’s recent proceeding to shift some of the burden to program suppliers here.
Continue Reading March Regulatory Dates for Broadcasters – Closed Captioning Quality Standards Effective Date, Comments on Online Public File, MVPD Status for Online Video Providers, LIFO for Political Ads, and FRNs for Biennial Ownership Reports

If all goes as scheduled, at the beginning of December, commercial broadcasters will file Biennial Ownership Reports on FCC Form 323. As we wrote when the obligation to file the current version of these reports was first adopted, the FCC’s intent was to be able to track the interests of broadcast investors across all of their attributable ownership interests in various broadcast companies to assess broadcast diversity. To do so, these investors needed to get individual FCC Registration Numbers (FRNs) to track these individuals or entities across their various investments – so that the FCC could tell whether the John Smith who was an investor in a station in Albuquerque was the same John Smith who owned an interest in a station in Zanesville, and whether that person was also the John Q. Smith listed in an ownership report for a station in Missoula (all hypothetical, of course). The FCC assigns these FRNs to individuals based on their Social Security Numbers, and providing those numbers to the FCC created much unease among investors in connection with past filing windows. This caused the FCC to adopt temporary measures for investors unwilling to provide their SSNs to the FCC (see our articles here). In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released a week ago, the FCC proposed a new method to gather this information – perhaps hoping that it could go into effect before the new Biennial Report filings but, if not, before the next set of reports due in 2017.

The FCC’s new proposal uses a dazzling assortment of acronyms in discussing how best to keep track of unique broadcast investors across their investments. But the bottom line is that the FCC proposes to create a new Restricted Use FRN (or a “RUFRN”) that could be obtained for an individual submitting to the FCC certain information – including name, residence address, birth date and the last four numbers of their Social Security Numbers. The RUFRN would be used by the individual for reporting purposes in whatever broadcast station they may have an attributable interest. The FCC’s computer systems would be programmed to compare such filings to try to make sure that the individuals obtaining an RUFRN were receiving only a single RUFRN, as there have reportedly been problems with the existing interim system (where investors have received a “Special Use FRN” or “SUFRN” randomly generated by the FCC). The problems arose both because single individuals have been obtaining multiple SUFRNs and single SUFRNs have been used to identify multiple people. While thinking that the proposed RUFRNs would be better than SUFRNs (which required no specific identifying information to obtain), the FCC asks for comments on this proposal.
Continue Reading Protecting Broadcast Investors’ Social Security Numbers for the Biennial Ownership Report for Commercial Broadcasters (and, Potentially, Noncommercial Ones Too)

The FCC this week released a Public Notice announcing comment deadlines on rulemaking proposals relating to the FCC Biennial Ownership Reports. The first set of proposals deals with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued earlier this month, proposing a series of changes to the process for filing these reports. The proposals include a requirement that the all persons with attributable interests in broadcast stations get a unique FCC Registration Number (an "FRN"), which will require filing their Social Security numbers with the FCC. The second proceeding is one released in 2009, but is only now being published in the Federal Register triggering the comment deadline. This proposal suggests that certain nonattributable owners be identified and reported on these Biennial Ownership Reports despite their nonattributable status. Comments on these proposals will be due on February 14, 2013, with reply comments due on March 1, 2013.

The Biennial Ownership report, in its current form, was initially adopted in 2009.  The new reports were to gather information not just about the ownership of broadcasters, but also about their race, ethnicity and gender, so that the FCC could get a better handle on the presence of minority owners in broadcasting.  The first report on the new form was to be filed in November 2009, but that deadline was pushed back to July 2010 when issues with the new form developed.  The second Biennial Ownership report was to have been filed by commercial stations in late 2011 (two years after the original date), and the next is due later this year.  The information in the first two reports was compiled into the information that formed the basis of the FCC’s December request for comments on the impact of proposed changes in the multiple ownership rules on minority ownershipContinue Reading FCC Seeks Comments on Biennial Ownership Report – Seeking Social Security Numbers From All Attributable Owners – and Some Who Are Not

The long-delayed revised Biennial ownership reports (about which we last wrote here) for commercial broadcast stations, on the new Form 323, are due on July 8, and the FCC is in the process of clarifying what it needs.  The Commission just released a Public Notice reminding broadcasters that the report is supposed to be detailing station ownership as of November 1, 2009 (when the reports were originally supposed to be filed).  Yet, in the 8 months since that date, many stations have changed ownership.  Is a new owner supposed to get the old owner to complete the form?  What if the old owner is off somewhere on a cruise, or simply wants nothing more to do with the station?  The FCC’s Public Notice clarifies (to some extent) what to do in that case – indicating that stations in that situation can file a waiver request, detailing why they can’t provide the ownership information for the owners who held the station license on November 1, 2009, and asking that the FCC waive its rules and excuse the filing of a report for this particular station.  This obligation to file the waiver request is on the current owner.  Note that the FCC does not say that it will grant all such waiver requests, and it specifically excludes from these waiver situations "pro forma" assignments or transfers, i.e. ones where the actual control has not changed but the legal entity holding that control has changed such as in a corporate reorganization where a station license is moved from a parent company to a subsidiary, or from a corporation to an LLC which is controlled by the same individual. 

Another looming issue may also create issues for the July 8 filings.  A group of state broadcast associations and broadcast owners has asked the US Court of Appeals to once again put the filing obligation on hold until the FCC justifies the information that is being collected.  Last week, the Court asked the Commission to justify its requirement that each person with an attributable interest in a station (i.e. anyone who would have to be reported on the Form 323) obtain an FRN (a unique identifier) which can only be obtained by furnishing  a Social Security Number.  While this may indicate that the Court is concerned about forcing every investor and officer and director of a broadcast company to provide this information, even if the Court forbids the collection of that information, it is possible that the FCC would move forward anyway with the Form 323 filing obligation – just removing the FRN from the required filing.  So don’t count on the July 8 deadline being pushed back – start preparing now to be on file by the deadline.Continue Reading July 8 Filing Deadline for Commercial Broadcast Stations Form 323 Ownership Report – Clarifications Issued