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FCC to Take Another Crack at Boosting Station Disclosures

The FCC next week is expected 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 that is only so the current commission can start over and figure out the best way to achieve that goal.

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 also 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."

The FCC has scheduled a vote on the order and inquiry at its Oct. 27 meeting.

In meetings with FCC staffers this week, 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.

According to a source familiar with the document, the FNPRM tracks closely with suggestions made by PIPAC, the Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition.

PIPAC wants the FCC to create a standardized form that is machine readable and becomes part of a searchable database administered by the FCC but with links from broadcasters' Websites as well as to the FCC's ownership data.

PIPAC wants broadcasters to be required to provide the info for two composite weeks (the FCC would randomly select different days from different weeks) per quarter. That info would be on "core local programming," which PIPAC defined as "Local News; Local Civic/Governmental Affairs; Local Electoral Affairs; and Closed Captioning/Emergency Accessibility Complaints." In addition, it wants broadcasters to have to report all local electoral coverage in the run-up to elections. It also wants the FCC to require that political files -- requests to purchase political time -- be posted in the online file as well.

NAB in its comments said that "developing a system of uploading, organizing, and ensuring timely online access to the political file presents a significant challenge," and noted that the 355 online form requirement had "appropriately," excluded that requirement.

Currently, stations have to put joint sales agreements in their public files. PIPAC wants the FCC to require joint operating agreements to be posted there as well.

The FCC information needs report also recommended that stations disclose in their online files any "pay for play" news programming that would require on-air disclosure. PIPAC agrees.

In its comments, NAB said that "to the extent that the Commission is considering proposals to require the online public file to contain new information that is not currently in the file, such as sponsorship identification information or additional contracts, it should ask balanced questions regarding both the potential benefits and burdens of such proposals, and should develop a complete record regarding whether there is a need for such additional information." That "whether" is the reason NAB wanted it to be an inquiry rather than a rulemaking, which presupposes that "whether" and moves on to the "how."