Ghost in the Machine?

Shades of HAL!  CDBS may be developing a mind of its own.

We all remember HAL, the creepy monotone computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey that developed an unpleasant independent streak.  (Click here for a clip of HAL’s big scene.)  Science fiction, right?  Maybe not.  It seems that, like HAL, the FCC’s Consolidated Database System (CDBS) may be developing a mind of its own.

CDBS, of course, is one of the Commission’s crucial electronic interfaces with the Real World.  Broadcasters file applications and reports of all sorts through CDBS, which in turn regularly spits out public notices reflecting (among other things) application filings.  Those public notices are issued daily and can run anywhere from a few pages to a few hundred pages, depending on the level of filing activity.  Since inclusion of an application listing in such a Broadcast Applications public notice usually establishes deadlines for related filings, the notices are an important, if prosaic, component of the FCC’s regulatory system.

So it struck a number of observers as odd when, in recent weeks, public notices about renewal applications for a couple of FM translators and an LPTV station included the following comment:

NOTE: BASED ON OUR INITIAL ANALYSIS OF THIS APPLICATION AND OTHER PUBLICLY AVAILABLE INFORMATION, INCLUDING ADVERTISING REVENUE SHARE DATA FROM THE BIA DATABASE, THE COMMISSION INTENDS TO CONDUCT ADDITIONAL ANALYSIS OF THE OWNERSHIP CONCENTRATION IN THE RELEVANT MARKET. THIS ANALYSIS IS UNDERTAKEN PURSUANT TO THE COMMISSION'S OBLIGATION UNDER SECTION 310 (D) OF THE COMMUNICATIONS ACT, 47 U.S.C. SECTION 310 (D), TO GRANT AN APPLICATION TO TRANSFER OR ASSIGN A BROADCAST LICENSE OR PERMIT ONLY IF SO DOING SERVES THE PUBLIC INTEREST, CONVENIENCE AND NECESSITY. WE REQUEST THAT ANYONE INTERESTED IN FILING A RESPONSE TO THIS NOTICE SPECIFICALLY ADDRESS THE ISSUE OF CONCENTRATION AND ITS EFFECT ON COMPETITION AND DIVERSITY IN THE BROADCAST MARKETS AT ISSUE AND SERVE THE RESPONSE ON THE PARTIES.

(You can see that notation here (at page 25), and here (at page 181), and again here (at page 37).)

Old hands will recognize that particular verbiage as reminiscent of notations that the Commission used to include with respect to certain assignment or transfer applications that were thought to raise possible concentration of control questions.  Those notations were part of an effort, in place from 1998-2003, to “flag” potential problem applications.

But the flagging process generally involved neither renewal applications nor secondary services (like FM translators and LPTVs), and in any event it hasn’t been around for about a decade. 

So why have the “flag” notations suddenly reappeared? 

Beats us.

We posed that question to some folks at the FCC and were surprised to learn that the Commission’s staff appeared to be equally at a loss to explain the phenomenon.  From the guarded responses we got, it looks like CDBS has, on its own, taken to adding the notation to random applications without much rhyme or reason.  The notations were apparently not intended to be inserted into any of the public notices -- we have no reason to believe that anybody at the Commission is looking to re-institute the long-gone “flagging” process -- but they showed up nonetheless.  We understand that the staff, now alerted to the problem, has taken to searching for such notations and manually deleting them from the public notices before they go out the door.

We applaud the staff for making extra efforts to prevent the inclusion of obviously extraneous (and potentially confusing) notations in the FCC’s public notices.  But shouldn’t the Commission go further and get to the bottom of why CDBS is acting up like this?

Again, the public notices issued daily based on CDBS have considerable legal significance, so the Commission – and everybody who relies on those notices – should be troubled by the notion that the notices may contain inaccurate information.  Rather than rely on manual troubleshooting by Media Bureau staff who have lots of other things to do, the Commission – in the interest of ensuring the reliability of CDBS and, by extension, its other electronic systems – may want to sic a team of IT specialists on the problem. 

For a demonstration of how the problem might be resolved, click here.

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