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FCC rulemaking signals potential demise of a physical station public file

The FCC has proposed a measure that portends the death of a physical station public file. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would eliminate the requirement that commercial broadcast stations maintain a correspondence folder of letters and e-mails from the public in the station’s public file. 

David Burns, an attorney with TAB’s FCC legal counsel Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, said the requirement “is one of the only vestiges of the physical public file that remained after the FCC’s decisions to move television and radio public files online.”

Television stations’ public file, for the most part, moved online a few years ago.

Earlier this year the FCC announced a timetable for radio stations to do the same.

Starting June 24, commercial radio stations that have five or more full-time employees and that are located in the Top 50 Nielsen Audio markets must upload public inspection file documents (including political file documents) created on or after that date, to the FCC’s new Online Public Inspection File (OPIF).

The next deadline for the first wave of radio stations affected is Dec. 24.

That’s the date when public file documents (with the exception of political file documents) created prior to June 24 must be uploaded to the OPIF.

All other radio stations will have until March 1, 2018 to upload newly created public inspection and political file documents and upload all existing public inspection file documents (with the exception of the political file).

Harry Cole, an attorney with TAB Associate member law firm Fletcher, Health and Hildreth, said radio stations can become with familiar with the system now using the FCC’s test site for online public file newbies

TV stations will want to explore it as well, because as TAB has mentioned in past issues of the Bulletin, the television online public file will migrate to this new portal on June 24.

TV stations have been using the Broadcast Public Inspection File (BPIF) database to upload station files. 

The FCC will automatically move materials previously uploaded by TV stations to BPIF to the new OPIF.

The commission is expected to announce a date soon for an online public file webinar to cover uploading material to OPIF.

This latest FCC public file proposal came in a rare display of unanimity by the current commission – the NPRM was supported by all five commissioners.

Of particular note is Chairman Wheeler’s statement in support of the proposal, which said if adopted, the rule would enable broadcasters to “lock their doors and redeploy resources once used to help the public access the file at the studio.” 

Small stations and large clusters alike would benefit from adoption of such a rule.

Pillsbury attorney Scott Flick wrote recently that eliminating the requirement to maintain correspondence from the public in a physical file would free stations from the need to provide free and unfettered access to their offices, and to maintain staff at all times during business hours ready to handle public file requests.

The FCC based its proposal to eliminate the requirement, in part, upon the increase in communication between the public and broadcast stations on social media platforms and the corresponding decrease in communication by letter and e-mail. 

David Oxenford, an attorney with TAB Associate member law firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer, said commissioners also voiced concern for station security because allowing unfettered access during normal business hours could result in security threats to stations.

The public file rule appears to be the only FCC regulation requiring public access to a station’s studios.

Oxenford notes while there is still a requirement that stations maintain a main studio which, under precedent established through specific cases needs to be manned during normal business hours, “there does not appear to be an explicit obligation allowing the public to physically access that studio during those hours.”

He hopes that the FCC, if it indeed decides to do away with the obligation to maintain a physical file with these letters from the public, “makes clear that broadcasters can require appointments for visitors to the station facilities and need not continue to allow anyone, anytime, to walk into the station.”

Initial comments on the FCC’s proposals will be due 30 days after the NPRM is published in the Federal Register, with reply comments due 60 days after Federal Register publication.

Questions? Contact TAB's Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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