FCC to Consider Tomorrow Extending Online Public File Requirements to Cable, Satellite and Radio

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Last week, before the snow storm brought Washington, DC to a halt, Campaign Legal Center, joined by the Sunlight Foundation and Common Cause, filed reply comments at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to urge the agency to expeditiously adopt new rules extending the online public file requirements to cable operators, DBS providers, and radio and satellite radio licensees. The comments were filed in response to some last minute issues raised by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the American Cable Association (ACA).

The FCC is scheduled to consider the new rule at its next public meeting tomorrow.  The move comes in response to a request made by CLC and its coalition partners (hereafter “CLC”) about a year ago. CLC is represented in this proceeding by the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown Law Center.

In addition to calling on the Commission to extend the online public file requirements to cable, satellite and radio, CLC again urged the Commission to ensure that the public data is uploaded in a machine-readable format, instead of the current PDFs.  The Commission has continued to allow broadcast stations to upload PDF versions of their public file and has failed to implement a standardized format, resulting in inconsistent information and a substantial difficulty in analyzing the statutorily required data.

Extending the online requirements to cable, satellite and radio should be a no-brainer and it was encouraging that the FCC moved quickly to respond to CLC’s original petition.  Though not licensed to use the publicly owned airwaves in the same way as broadcast television, cable and satellite stations have long been covered by the public file requirements.  Ensuring they make this information more easily available, especially given the growing share of viewership by cable, is the best public policy.  And while radio is often a minor player in campaigns in large cities, it can play a large role in the political dialogue in smaller markets.

The comments CLC filed pushed back against the NAB’s request that stations with five or fewer employees be exempted from any online filing requirement.  As we had pointed out in previous comments filed last Spring, the number of employees is no longer a useful measure of the true size and significance of a radio station.  Because of new joint agreements among station groups, radio stations with substantial audiences in major markets may have as few as two full-time employees. 

In our comments, CLC urged the Commission to use a revenue-based test to determine which smaller radio stations should be exempt.  We also noted there is significant doubt if there is a need for any phase-in period.  Experience with the online file for television licensees has shown that, far from creating additional burdens, the online public files have actually reduced the burdens on licensees by obviating the need to accommodate in-person visitors, provides copies, etc.

In addition, CLC opposes the ACA’s proposal to lift the floor for the exemption from the public file obligations from 1,000 subscribers to 2,500 subscribers.  This is a new issue, not previously raised in this proceeding and is unjustified as the ACA submitted no information demonstrating that these requirements are excessively burdensome or that the cost of losing the public information is outweighed by the benefit of exempting additional cable systems.

The stage is now set for the FCC to extend the online requirements to cable, satellite and radio licensees, and it should do so. 

Meredith McGehee advises on legislative and media policy efforts.