FCC Readies Vote on Cable Online Public-File Rule

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission plans to vote Jan. 28 on an order to extend its online public-file requirements to cable and satellite providers and radio stations, agency chairman Tom Wheeler said.

The online public-file requirements already apply to broadcast TV stations, which must post those documents, including political files, to an FCC database.

The commission voted in December 2014 to extend that obligation to cable MSOs and others.

“This proposal does not include new disclosure requirements and would lower long-term costs for industry,” Wheeler said.

But smaller cable operators aren’t so sure about that.

While the rulemaking proposal approved in 2014 said cable systems with 1,000 to 5,000 subs would only have to make the online filing “upon request” — and smaller systems would get an exemption from the online filing requirement — there is concern the final order would not include that “upon request” flexibility or would move some things to the “must file” category.

In meetings with FCC staffers, the American Cable Association, which represents small independent MSOs, pressed the point about retaining the exemption, particularly given that when broadcasters’ files were required to be uploaded, the FCC imposed no new requirements. The disproportionate cost of compliance is always a hurdle for the smallest systems, a point ACA regularly makes to regulators.

The ACA also wants the FCC to allow third parties to upload documents to the public file — for example, a cable rep firm such as Viamedia would upload the political ad buys it makes on cable systems.

But the ACA also wants the FCC to give cable operators a safe harbor if those third parties don’t comply, explaining, “[T]he benefits of allowing third-party uploading could be denied the public if a small cable operator, based on reasonable expectations that a third party would upload the documents on their behalf in compliance with the commission’s rules, must nonetheless accept the risk of an enforcement action, including forfeiture, if its reasonable reliance proves misplaced after the fact.”

If third-party filing is allowed, the liability carveout is unlikely to be included, an FCC source said.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.