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Another go on EEO rules

New equal-employment requirements for the TV and radio businesses will go into effect early next year. Last week, the FCC approved the third incarnation of industry recruiting rules.

The mandate requires broad outreach efforts and is aimed at avoiding the ire of federal judges who twice struck down earlier requirements they viewed as illegal quotas. At the same time, the FCC wants the rules to carry enough force to make broadcasters and cable and satellite operators step up efforts to interview, and presumably hire, more minorities and women.

"The rules we adopt today include a broad outreach program that is squarely race- and gender-neutral and, thus, not constitutionally suspect," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said shortly after the four-commissioner panel unanimously approved the requirements.

Operators can face fines and, in extreme cases, license revocation if they ignore their new obligations. Owners now must document their outreach efforts in their public file, which must be kept at their main studios, and post them on their Web site if they maintain one. The FCC will conduct random audits for compliance and review performance at license-renewal time and at midterm reviews.

The EEO reports do not include demographic data on employees or interviewees but must document sources of referrals and the dates and publication of ad listings for all job vacancies.

The new rules received a lukewarm reception from the National Association of Broadcasters, which, along with state broadcast associations, opposed the previous version. The industry had urged the FCC not to require stations to collect demographic and hiring data. However, some new obligations were added, and the prospect for additional reporting burdens was left open.

"NAB has long been concerned with over-regulatory EEO rules that create undue paperwork burdens, particularly on small-market broadcasters," said NAB President Eddie Fritts. "It appears today's new rules have done little to reduce these burdens."

Although the new rules do not require stations and pay-TV distributors to record the ethnic and gender hiring data as part of their EEO obligations, the FCC said it will seek public comment on requiring that information in revised station annual reports.

That prospect cheered David Honig, executive director of the Minority Media Telecommunications Council, who said policymakers cannot gauge whether the rules are working unless hiring trends are tracked accurately. "This was a Solomonic effort to satisfy the opponents of record-keeping requirements and doing the right thing."

The rules require broadcast stations, cable systems and satellite-TV providers to establish broad outreach efforts that ensure that job-vacancy notices and general recruiting efforts reach minorities and women (see box). The commissioners said the rules are needed to rectify decades of discrimination against minorities and women in media hiring, either intentional in historic recruiting policies or as a byproduct of word-of-mouth recruiting.

"This is not an area where we can afford to be timid, because there is nothing less than civil rights at stake," said Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps. "We are nowhere near the object of equal opportunity in communications today."

The FCC imposed EEO responsibilities on broadcasters in 1969 and extended the obligations to cable operators in 1984 and to all pay-TV distributors in 1992. In 1998, however, federal appeals judges found the provision allowing license renewals to be challenged when a station's demographic makeup didn't reflect local population was an illegal de facto quota. A less demanding revision issued in 2001 also was thrown out.

By leaving the prospect of demographic-reporting rules for separate annual reports, the FCC is hoping to insulate the new EEO rules from further judicial attack.