In addition to the new program reporting requirements the FCC is imposing on TV licensees, the FCC is introducing a new requirement that TV licensees post their public files on their websites (if they have websites). This raises an intriguing question: if a station’s public file is readily accessible online, should the station be required to maintain a "main studio"?
Once upon a time, a station’s main studio was a focus of its identity, serving as the place where programming was originated and where the public could find the station’s local public inspection file. The program origination requirement went away decades ago (the FCC still requires main studios have the ability to originate programming, but the rules no longer require stations to use that ability). Nevertheless, the FCC held onto the public file requirement – possibly because the existence of the public file rule appeared to convince a skeptical appeals court to uphold the FCC’s deregulation of radio and TV in the 1980s. The idea was that the local availability of a public file would provide members of the local audience important information that would empower them to act as "private attorneys-general" – bringing sub-par performance to the Commission’s attention at renewal time.
But now that TV public files will be available online, what regulatory purpose is served by a "main studio"? After all, members of the public will be able to access all of that important information in the comfort of their homes – or in the comfort of their workplaces, public libraries, iPhones, etc. Indeed, because the FCC liberalized the main studio location rules to allow stations to locate their main studios 25 miles away from their communities of license, the nearest Internet access is almost certain to be closer than any given station’s main studio. Why, then, should licensees be required to maintain an entire bricks-and-mortar facility that may not otherwise be necessary to their operation?
Eliminating the main studio rule probably isn’t what the FCC had in mind when it created the new public file online requirement for TV stations, but it isn’t that much of a leap. To the contrary, it seems like the next logical step. Under the current rules, stations must maintain a local or toll-free telephone number for communication with the public. If the public file is online and the station locally publicizes an email address for electronic correspondence and a physical address for correspondence by regular mail, the public would have all of the purported benefits of a locally-maintained main studio without requiring the station to have a potentially unnecessary office in any particular location. At the very least, the FCC could eliminate the main studio location rules, allowing stations to put their facilities wherever business requirements dictate, freeing stations from unnecessary expense and freeing the FCC from the need to police main studio locations. We would hope that the FCC would consider a move that would ease burdens on both licensees and the FCC’s staff without compromising service to the public. Then again, we may be uncommonly hopeful people.