At its April 27 meeting, the FCC is expected to adopt new rules requiring TV stations to post their public inspection files on an FCC-hosted website, according to several agency insiders. And the commission is likely to insist that a station’s political files — records of political advertising bought by candidates and advocacy groups — be electronically converted and uploaded as well.
At KTVN Reno, Nev., putting the station’s paper public inspection files online is not something General Manager Lawson Fox is looking forward to.
The CBS affiliate’s files are stored in six drawers, each about four feet long. Lawson says that there is also a nearly three-foot tall stack of tightly packed paper which contains the political advertising portion of the files.
Going online would be a “huge and tedious’’ task, Fox says. “There would certainly be costs attached to it. We’d have to allocate the hours to it and possibly pay overtime to get it done.”
At its April 27meeting, the FCC is expected to adopt new rules requiring TV stations to post their public inspection files on an FCC-hosted website, according to several agency insiders.
And the commission is likely to insist that a station’s political files — records of political advertising bought by candidates and advocacy groups — be electronically converted and uploaded as well.
It’s also anticipated that the agency will demand that stations include in their online file a list of all program sponsors. Stations are now obligated to identify sponsors on air, but not in their paper inspection files.
The obligation arises from concerns that stations have been airing information in news and other programming without notifying viewers that it had been paid for.
But bending to the concerns of broadcasters, insiders say, the FCC will require only that broadcaster upload files in a PDF format rather than into a searchable, common database as the FCC had first proposed.
“I think there has been some retreat from that notion,’’ says Jerry Fritz, senior vice president of Allbritton Communications, among the many broadcasters who has been lobbying the FCC to ease up on the new requirements.
In a filing with the FCC, Fritz argued that uploading to a searchable database would create “extraordinary” costs in equipment, software design and personnel.
“Since no two stations operate identically, sell the same classes of time or even share common data entry codes or protocols, this process would ultimately lead to a Soviet-style standardization of the way advertising should be sold as determined by the government, as opposed to allowing sales to be driven by the market,” he wrote. “The tail would wag the dog; reporting would drive the sales process.”
Broadcast reps in Washington also expect the FCC not to adopt another proposal that shared services agreements be included in an online public inspection file.
Time brokerage and joint sales agreements are currently part of the paper public inspection file, but not SSAs.
Advocacy groups opposed to media consolidation have been pushing for inclusion of SSAs, believing that broadcasters are using them to circumvent the FCC ban against common ownership of two top-ranked stations in small markets.
Still, the FCC’s overall actions later this month are not expected to sit well with broadcasters.
The new political and sponsorship ID obligations “would result in average costs to stations ranging from $30,000 to $120,000-$140,000 per station per year,’’ according to an FCC filing submitted by Hearst Television.
“Hearst has estimated that, should the proposals be adopted without modification, it would be required to hire at least one new full-time equivalent employee and perhaps as many as four new employees per station — in the worst case scenario, one employee to handle political file compliance and three others to ensure compliance with the sponsorship identification proposal,” wrote Brooks Pierce attorney Mark Prak, on behalf of Hearst.
Broadcasters have been particularly troubled by the thought of including the political files in the online requirement. They claim the files are loaded with information on advertising rates that rivals can use against them in selling spots to commercial advertisers as well as political advertisers.
The Television Operators Caucus, representing several major TV station groups, suggested the FCC require that stations provide brief summaries of the political spending on their stations instead of having to upload entire files.
In an effort to head off the new duties, the NAB tried to get the matter tabled. It asked the FCC to establish a joint working group to “make a full and realistic assessment of whether and how to develop an online public inspection file mechanism that will benefit the public while minimizing the burdens on broadcast stations.’’
Neither proposal made much headway with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “He is pretty determined to see the political file posted online,” says one observer.
In 2007, the FCC first adopted rules requiring stations to post their public inspection files, excluding the political files. But those 2007 rules never went into effect.
Broadcasters petitioned for reconsideration at the FCC, they challenged the rules in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, and the agency never sent the rules to the Office of Management and Budget for its necessary imprimatur.
In resurrecting the proposal last October, the FCC decided to throw political files into the online requirement.
With two vacancies on the commission now, Genachowski needs just one vote to adopt the new rules. That would be fellow Democrat Mignon Clyburn.
The agency’s lone Republican, Robert McDowell, has already registered his strong objections to putting stations’ political information online.
Last month, McDowell told a House panel that he was concerned that the financial burden imposed on stations might lead to cuts in local programming and newsgathering.
“Not only would such a rule be especially onerous for smaller and independent broadcasters in these challenging economic times, but it could also undermine long-standing federal policy to promote local programming,” McDowell’s testified.
Advocacy groups are the driving force behind the FCC’s online push.
“Broadcasters have been making this information public for decades. Now they are saying please don’t make us share this. Well, you’ve been sharing it all these years, you seemed to have survived, ” says Meredith McGehee, the Campaign Legal Center’s policy director.
“Once this information can be easily accessed online, it will become pretty clear that there are many broadcasters that are not meeting their statutory requirements,” she says, referring to broadcasters’ obligations to provide reasonable access, equal opportunities and the lowest unit rates.
NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton doesn’t agree.
“Our friend Meredith should know that broadcasters have every incentive to adhere to political ad rules, and stations hire very expensive lawyers to ensure compliance,” he says.
“The real question is why broadcasters are being singled out for a new FCC regulatory burden when much of this information is already available at the FEC, and why our cable TV competitors would be exempted,” Wharton adds.
Nothing is certain. The FCC is expected to release the agenda for its April 27 meeting within the next few days. And even if the online public file proposal is on it, the chairman could take it off right up to the day of the meeting.