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FCC Votes to Post TV Station Political Files Online

The FCC voted Friday to require TV stations to publish their public files online. Those are the files that contain information about, among other things, their compliance with kids TV programming minimums, EEO files, joint sales agreements and files on political ad buys.

The commission will initially require the online political posting from TV stations affiliated with the Big Four networks in the top 50 markets -- within 30 days after the rules take effect -- then the rest of the stations two years after that. The other public files must be posted by all stations within six months after the rules go into effect. It will not require posting existing political file information (it must be kept for two years), only new information going forward.

The commission will examine the impact of the political file online posting after a year, before it applies to all stations.

Not required to be posted online are any letters or e-mails to the station from the public.

The FCC will maintain the online database and will not require stations to file any info already filed with the FCC -- the commission will upload it for them. But it will require individual spot prices in political files to be placed online. Broadcasters argue that sensitive price information in a national database puts them at a competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis cable and print competitors under no similar disclosure obligation. Cable and satellite and print media have no such reporting requirements.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said it was a common sense move, and that broadcasters, in arguing for only putting aggregate political spot prices rather than individual prices online, would be censoring info Congress expressly said should be made public.

Commissioner Robert McDowell dissented from the political file portion of the requirement, saying it created an unequal regime (cable, satellite and online distributors have no similar requirement); could lead to anticompetitive pricing activity; would heap regulations on smaller, including diverse, stations; and could well wind up in Paperwork Reduction Act purgatory.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called the item "the proper interpretation" of the disclosure law, with the beneficiary being the American public.

Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake said the item was essentially part of the FCC's ongoing move of paper files online. It will allow the public a one-stop shop to vet public files in stations in their markets, or across markets. Despite McDowell's suggestion the item could face Paperwork Reporting Act delays, Lake said that the FCC expected the online posting requirement would kick in during this election season.

After the meeting, Genachowski drew a distinction between this proposal and an online station reporting requirement in 2007 that never went into effect due to paperwork issues. He said unlike that instance, this requirement did not include a new and complicated form, but instead simply the move of a paper reporting requirement to an online one. He said that ultimately it would reduce, not increase, paperwork burdens for stations.

Currently, stations keep the files either in filing cabinets or on their own websites or both. He pointed out that the FCC was not putting new reporting requirements on broadcasters. The commission had initially asked in its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking whether it should start requiring that more detailed programming reports, joint operating agreements and sponsorship IDs be added to the reporting requirement and put online, all of which broadcasters had balked at as well. It did not require any of that Friday, though it sill has an open proceeding on increasing program reporting requirements.

The FCC made the move despite a last-minute compromise proposal from broadcasters, the centerpiece of which was putting aggregate political spot pricing in the online file rather than individual buys and in the face of a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski from three House Energy & Commerce Committee Republicans, including two top Communications Subcommittee members, who said they were concerned the FCC was rushing the vote.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which had pushed for the aggregate spot proposal on political files, was not pleased with the FCC vote.

"NAB respectfully disagrees with today's FCC decision and we're disappointed that the Commission rejected compromise proposals proffered by broadcasters that would have brought greater transparency to political ad buying," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. "By forcing broadcasters to be the only medium to disclose on the Internet our political advertising rates, the FCC jeopardizes the competitive standing of stations that provide local news, entertainment, sports and life-saving weather information free of charge to tens of millions of Americans daily. We appreciate Commissioner McDowell's thoughtful and compelling dissent, and we will be seeking guidance from our Board of Directors regarding our options."

"The FCC took an important step today to strengthen disclosure and transparency in political advertising," said House Energy & Commerce Committee ranking Democrat Henry Waxman (Calif.). "Congress already requires broadcasters to disclose political advertising sales and terms because the American people have a right to know how the public airwaves are being used. The FCC's action brings this mandate into the 21st century. I commend Chairman Genachowski and the Commission and hope they will now apply this requirement across the board so that all entities that maintain political files post this information online."

"The Commission's action is an important victory for transparency and accountability in our nation's public policy making broadcasters' public files truly public," said Meredith McGehee, Policy Director of the Campaign Legal Center, in a statement. "Keeping this information in file cabinets that required a personal visit to the TV station served only to make it difficult to hold broadcasters accountable for meeting the few requirements they have - reasonable access, equal opportunity and lowest unit charge.

At the meeting, Genachowski said it had taken FCC staffers 61 hours and cost $1,700 in copy fees to collect that info from eight Baltirmore stations.

Moving the files online was one of the recommendations of the FCC's report on the information needs of communities.