FCC Votes to Extend Public Files to Cable, Satellite

The FCC has voted to propose requiring cable and DBS systems and radio stations (and XM-Sirius) to post their public files, including political files, in an FCC-administered online database.

In response to a petition filed by campaign finance reform groups seeking that extended online filing, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler Oct. 30 circulated a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to that effect for a vote by the other commissioners.

TV broadcasters already have to file records of political ad buys to a searchable, FCC-hosted database (the FCC says it has had millions of hits on that database), but the FCC held off extending that requirement, and other public file requirements — like EEO, children's TV and more — to cable and satellite operators, which are all still required to keep those files available for public inspection locally.

The FCC in August asked whether that requirement should be extended.

Now that the FCC has decided that is the case, commenters will have 60 days to weigh in on the proposal, so it will at least be the first quarter of 2015 before the requirement could be approved in a final order.

The FCC is proposing not to require archival material to be uploaded, but only new material on a going-forward basis. The FCC will require cable operators to provide information about the geographic areas they serve, and require cable, DBS, broadcast radio and XM-Sirius to provide location and local contact information for their local flies.

Beyond that, the FCC said it simply wanted to extend the current requirements to an online format.

"While the Commission first included only television broadcasters in its public file database to “ease the initial implementation of the online public file,” television broadcasters have successfully transitioned to the online file over the past two years. Accordingly, we now believe it is appropriate to commence the process of expanding the online file to other media entities in order to extend the benefits of improved public access to public inspection files and, ultimately, reduce the burden on these other entities of maintaining these files."

The FCC suggested that while the move will incur a "modest," one-time transitional cost, that is outweighed by the public benefit of online disclosure, and will eventually lower costs by replacing paper files that need to be curated at the station or system with electronic files.

Cable operators with fewer than 1,000 subs will be exempt from online filing of "political file, sponsorship identification, EEO records, and children’s commercial programming records.” Systems with 1,000-5,000 subs will have to upload political files but can provide other information on request.

Cable political files will have to have similar information to TV station files, which means a “complete and orderly record…of all requests for cablecast time made by or on behalf of a candidate for public office including the disposition of such requests." They will also have to include a schedule of spots purchased, when they are scheduled and aired, and the rates and classes of time purchased.

For purchasers of issue ads, they must provide "the name of the purchasing organization and a list of the board of directors."

"I am pleased to support this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking," said FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai. "The Commission must modernize its rules to reflect the digital age in which we live, and moving more regulated entities’ public files online is a step in the right direction. I also appreciate the incorporation of many of my suggestions for reducing regulatory burdens as a part of this effort."

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.