Martin to Stations: Put Public Records Online

Move could fuel activist monitoring of stations’ performance
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FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wants broadcasters to put their public files online, including public-affairs–programming logs, requests for political-ad time and the prices charged, according to FCC sources.

Some in the TV industry say the move could provide more ammunition for activist groups looking to challenge TV licenses and could add up to more expense and time for stations to convert drawers of papers to a searchable Web database.

Martin has circulated a notice of proposed rulemaking that would require online filing of TV stations’ public files. He likely has the votes to pass it, given the views of Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein on the public’s access to information.

Floated by former Democratic FCC Chairman William Kennard in 2000, the proposal would make it a lot easier for the public—including activist groups—to keep tabs on broadcasters’ filing obligations and performance on a number of fronts, ranging from consulting deals with independent contractors to ongoing indecency-complaint investigations to how much they were charging candidates for airtime.

It is one of dozens of items the chairman is circulating among the commissioners, looking to clear up a backlog of items dating back to previous chairmen in the face of increased oversight by powerful Democrats now heading congressional committees.

Stations are already required to maintain a public-inspection file, usually housed at the station’s studio. In fact, the FCC has explicitly charged the public with helping it monitor TV-station compliance with its rules, all but deputizing it in a passage from the FCC’s Website explaining its rules:

“Because we do not monitor a station’s programming, viewers and listeners are a vital source of information about the programming and possible rule violations. The documents in each station’s public-inspection file have information about the station that can assist the public in this important role.”

Martin wants to make that easier but told B&C in an April 9 interview he thinks broadcasters would actually benefit from the heightened visibility of those files. “Much of the debate over whether broadcasters should be subjected to additional public-interest obligations is based on whether they are serving their communities now,” he told B&C, “I think most broadcasters are doing a good job, and making public their practices will add concrete facts to this debate and should benefit them.”

But a number of broadcasters have been admonished and/or fined over the past year for not keeping adequate children’s-TV records—which are already required to be posted online—often citing ignorance of the requirement, station turnover or clerical errors.

Logistical Problems

Jack Goodman, a Washington communications attorney with WilmerHale who represents TV stations, says he sees major logistical problems for broadcasters, who weighed in strongly against the proposal in 2000. The public file is enormous, he says, which would have to be posted and organized and maintained online.

Among the most voluminous filings, he adds, are the records of every request and appearance by a political candidate. The FCC has exempted those from earlier filing requirements, at broadcasters’ urging, based on the argument, says Goodman, that the people who use it are “political professionals who can manage to find the station and go there.” Apparently not this time. A source who has seen the order says it requires political records to be posted online as well.

Although EEO reports and kids-TV filings already have to be on station Websites, the candidate record-keeping and quarterly public-affairs–issues program lists do not. In the latter, stations log a list of 10 issues “important to the public and the community” and the programs in which those issues were addressed.

“This is a huge headache,” says one communications lawyer, echoing others.

Shifting the Burden

Cheryl Leanza, managing director of the United Church of Christ, which has filed complaints against stations for kids-TV rule violations, says, “Having public files online would make it much easier for any member of the public, including the UCC, to review a station’s behavior and progress.” Currently, citizens frequently have to make an appointment and go down and look at a public file, and it can be very difficult, she says.

While opening up broadcasters to more challenges on their public-interest programming is one issue, the bigger challenge, says Goodman, who helped write the comments in the National Association of Broadcasters’ 2000 challenge to the online-filing proposal, is the administrative and IT burden, particularly to stations with limited resources.

In its 2000 opposition to the Kennard proposal, NAB estimated that the average public file is 14,000 pages, which would have to be converted to electronic form and maintained in a database.

NAB particularly wanted the FCC to exclude the political file, even if it went ahead with the order. The trade group argued the rule would mean essentially daily updates of the file in the political-ad season, which would be burdensome.

Broadcasters also argued that some information like viewer complaints and suggestions could raise privacy issues. A source says the order may include an exemption for those letters and e-mail.

Andrew Schwartzman, of watchdog group Media Access Project, says “Putting this information online is essential for meaningful public participation.”

E-mail comments to john.eggerton@reedbusiness.com

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