FCC Requires Broadcasters to Put Public Files On-Line
by Jerry Glover
May 1, 2012
Since 1965 all television and radio stations have been required to keep a “public file” at their station to show the general public information that is relevant to the station’s community. Any member of the public could look through this public file by simply setting up an appointment with the station or by dropping by the station and asking to view the file. A station’s public file must contain, inter alia, the FCC’s authorization to operate the station, ownership reports, retransmission agreements with cable companies, EEOC file, a public interest reporting form explaining how the station identified issues facing the community and programming aired in the past three months in response to those issues, children’s television programming efforts, a political file concerning broadcasts by political candidates, letters and e-mail from the public, and material relating to any FCC investigation of the station. See 47 C.F.R. Sec. 73.3526 (commercial stations) and Sec. 73.3527 (non-commercial stations).
At the end of April, 2012, the FCC announced that it is requiring all TV and radio stations to put these public files on a central database hosted by the FCC rather than maintain a paper file. Stations now have a two-year period in which to digitize and put this information on-line.
Broadcasters will be required to include in this public file posting their political file which shows how much that station charged political candidates for advertising on the station. Under federal law, stations can only charge candidates for federal office the station’s lowest unit rate for advertising. Broadcasters are concerned that posting these lowest unit rates as part of the station’s public file will give competitor broadcaster a little insight into an aspect of the station’s finances. This “insight” is currently available for people who visit the station to view the public file; shortly, however, this new rule will make it easier for the public (and competitors) to discover a station’s lowest unit rate. A station’s lowest unit rate information is not required to be posted for previous years after posting online. Broadcasters were also concerned about having the personnel to upload numerous documents during an election year when numerous additions to the public file are common.
One limitation: for the next two years only stations that are affiliated with a network (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) and are licensed to serve the top 50 U.S. communities will be required to post their political files online.
A second limitation: the only part of a broadcaster’s public file that needs to be posted online are those documents which are not already required to be filed with the FCC for other purposes or are already available on the FCC website.
The FCC will review the impact of the political file requirement one year after the rules go into effect. Stations not affiliated with a network and not serving a top 50 community will be required to put their public (and political) files on line beginning July, 2014 unless the FCC impact study determines a change in the rule is needed.
This is not the first time the FCC has tried to implement a public file on-line requirement. The first attempt to impose such a rule occurred in 2007, but stations successfully appealed to the Commission that the task was too complex and burdensome. Obviously, that argument did not hold sway with the FCC this time.