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FCC Proposes Moving TV Station Public Inspection Files Online

The FCC Thursday voted to scrap its 2007 Enhanced Disclosure decision to require broadcasters to file more detailed programming reports and put them online for easier public inspection, but only so the current commission can start over and figure out the best way to achieve that goal.

The commission voted unanimously, though with reservations and a concurrence from Commissioner Robert McDowell, to propose putting TV station public files online in a central database administered by the commission. That came in a further notice of proposed rulemaking that includes requiring stations to make any sponsorship identifications and shared services agreements (SSAs) part of that FCC-tended public file. Currently, stations maintain their own paper public inspection files, and sponsorship ID deals and SSAs are not required to be in those files.

It is unclear to what degree the FCC-maintained database would be searchable and cross-referenced to other info, like ownership info, but FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said that one of the reasons for moving the content online was to make it more accessible and usable by the public in new and creative ways.

The chairman is also circulating a notice of inquiry into what additional information the FCC should ask TV stations to submit to that database, including the political files it keeps on campaign ad buys. Commissioner Copps said he would have preferred the FCC take stronger measures on that score, including requiring stations to identify the groups bankrolling the ads, a measure he pushed for in the wake of the Citizens United decision.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said Thursday that the FCC planned to move on the items, including the inquiry, by the spring.

As part of then FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's effort to modify the FCC's newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules back in 2007, the FCC approved more detailed information on programming in a range of areas including news, public affairs and the amount of independently produced programming that stations air (the much-maligned form 355). The requirements included, among other things, a list of "all local news program segments dealing with community issues."

Broadcasters took the decision to court on the grounds that it would be a paperwork nightmare, arguing the FCC had underestimated the new paperwork collection requirements by some 1,000%. They also had First Amendment concerns. The court punted the decision back to the FCC and the new disclosure requirements have been in limbo ever since.

But with online disclosure one of the few hard recommendations of the FCC's report on the information needs of communities, the commission has decided to start over. It plans to vacate that 2007 disclosure decision and issue a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) seeking comment on how best to collect that info and what should be collected.

The report on the Information Needs of Communities said disclosure should be a "pillar" of media policy and could be used to help the FCC compare stations according to local service, help broadcasters "market" their commitment to the public interest, and help lawmakers "making spectrum policy" -- that would be Congress -- "have a more granular understanding of how broadcasters use their stations and serve the public."

In meetings with FCC staffers before the vote, according to papers filed at the commission, the National Association of Broadcasters reiterated the concerns it raised in 2007 about replacing its quarterly issues/programs list with reporting "certain programming with particular content" and the potential compliance burdens of more detailed reporting. NAB also said it thought the FCC should have issued a Notice of Inquiry rather than a further rulemaking proposal.