Will broadcasters public files' be made available online soon?

Posted by Mitchell - March 18, 2012 (entry 684)

One of the (few) mandatory public obligations of a TV or radio broadcast station license holder is to maintain a public file -- a collection of documents related the public such as written viewer and listener correspondence, legal filings, schedules of TV programming, records of what was reported on the news, records of advertising buys (including and especially ads from campaigns for political office), and documents filed with the FCC. The current law requires the public file to be maintained, keeping at least the last three years of such records, and made available for anyone who visits a radio or TV station during normal business hours (typically 9AM to 5PM, weekdays).

Broadcasters seldom announce to their audiences that they have these public files, and understandably so, since those files can sometimes include some juicy or informative facts about the stations and their content. So it's often news to American TV and radio viewers that (a) stations maintain public files, (b) they can view these public files, and (c) those files can sometimes have pretty damning information. The public file is typically kept in print format in one or more filing cabinets in a designated office in the station (that includes emails that come in to the station, which are typically printed out and placed in the same cabinet), and that's very often the extent of it. Accessing it is out of the way for most people -- you'd have to visit the station in person during normal business hours, and that often means taking time off from work to do so (assuming of course you have a job that allows this).

But that could soon change, at least in part. The Federal Communications Commission is considering a rule change requiring TV broadcasters to post a portion of the contents of their public files online. Indeed, the FCC has already had a round of feedback on the issue. Broadcasters are opposing this because, they claim, (a) it would add undue cost and logistical burden to stations already reeling from an industry hit by cable and internet competition, (b) those other industries don't need to make their files available to the public so broadcasters shouldn't either. Another likely reason, though broadcasters are loathe to mention it, is that they don't want their dirty laundry aired and made the focus of far more feasible study and analysis (the joke goes that broadcasters "seem to be the only industry in the modern world that prefers filing cabinets to an electronic filing system"). And if a portion of the public file is made available online or in readily digitable form, that could open a slippery slope for calls for more contents of public files that would be made available online.

Activists and media reform groups are encouraging the rule change, because (a) considering that the broadcasters have been squatting on public licenses to score private profit with little in return to the public, making their public file data easier to access is the least they could do, (b) broadcasters are and have been avoiding cost obligations for years, with the most recent round of covert consolidation merely the latest means, (c) it would allow far easier and faster gathering of information that activists could use to charge against the broadcasting industry -- imagine a detailed analysis of ad buys from digital public file databases in the wake of the Supreme Court Citizens United ruling, (d) very often broadcasters are part of larger conglomerates (e.g., the recent buyout of NBC by Comcast), so claiming that TV stations are rivals to other industries in an either/or struggle is often a disingenuous claim.

Very often, the commercial broadcast industry gets its way when it comes to broadcast policy. But in this case, despite broadcaster opposition, the FCC looks like they're going to pursue this further, and could well act on it reasonably soon, if for no other reason that it's embarrassing to not obligate broadcasters to digital files when so many other things are going digital and rather quickly. Indeed, some Senators have echoed this very concern, and even some in the industry seem to have had second thoughts on opposing the proposal.

There would arguably be a great many advantages to standardizing public file content, posting them online, and using that information to glean insights about our media and our society. But one concern in the wake of this is that the public has the right to walk in to a station, request to the the station's public file, and view it right then and there. We the people certainly do not want to lose the rights we currently have.

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