January 11, 2010 deadline still effective

Breaking a long silence, the Media Bureau has at last announced that the revised Ownership Report (Form 323) for commercial broadcasters should be available for review on line at the FCC’s website sometime in the next five days. Since the Bureau (and, presumably, the Commission) is sticking with the previously announced January 11, 2010, deadline for all commercial broadcasters (including LPTVs and Class A TVs) to file that form, it might have been nice for them to make the form available by October 1 (when it was first promised), or by November 16 (the next target date), or by sometime the week of November 16 (when the date slid again), or by now. But what the heck – it looks like December 9 (or maybe sooner) is the date that All Will Be Revealed.

The public notice announcing the impending revelation of the revised form also promises that the Commission will convene an “instructional workshop” on the revised form on December 9 at 2:00 p.m. in the Commission meeting room. (Can’t make it to D.C. for the festivities? No problem – the workshop will be broadcast live on the Internet at www.fcc.gov/live.)

Frequenters of our blog may be asking themselves: “Will we still have to include FRNs for each of our individual ‘attributable interest holders’?” After all, as we pointed out to the Commission in both a motion for stay and a petition for reconsideration, imposition of that particular requirement raises a number of very difficult – some might say insurmountable – legal problems.

Apparently the Commission got the memo, but didn’t read it all the way through.

In its public notice, the Bureau advises that the new form still requires the inclusion of FRNs for each individual, BUT it also includes a mechanism for generating a “Special Use FRN” (“SUFRN”, as in “SUFRN’ SUCCOTASH”) for the purpose of getting the Form 323 on file when a real FRN is not available. The “SUFRN” can be used only for filing Form 323 (and not for any other FCC purpose). While the public notice indicates that “instructions on how to obtain a [SUFRN] are on” the FCC’s Form 323 webpage, we couldn’t find any such instructions, although (for what it’s worth) Question 4 of the FAQs there does mention that “the electronic form [Form 323] contains a mechanism for generating an interim “SUFRN” solely for the purposes of completing the form”.

You might think that the Commission’s willingness to accept a SUFRN in lieu of a social-security-number-based FRN indicates that the Commission has recognized (a) the legitimate concern that many have expressed about coughing up their SSNs and (b) the fact that some alternative(s) to SSN-based FRNs should be available to do the trick.

You would, of course, be wrong.

The public notice makes clear in no uncertain terms that every individual who shows up as “attributable” in a Form 323 will still have to have a f’real (i.e.¸SSN-based) FRN, and that the SUFRN is just a temporary stopgap “to ease the transition to use of the revised form”. According to the notice, the Commission still “expect[s] filers using Special Use FRNs to update their filed ownership reports with fully compliant FRNs when these are obtained.”

So the Commission is sticking to its guns and insisting on SSN-based FRNs from one and all, even though an alternative – the SUFRN – appears to be readily available as a non-SSN-based alternative. It seems that the SUFRN is just a device by which the Commission hopes to create the impression that you can get your Form 323 filed without disclosing your social security number, perhaps in an attempt to take the wind out of the sails of those who oppose the revised form as unduly intrusive because of the SSN/FRN requirement. But that impression would be a misimpression, since the notice makes stunningly clear that SSN-based FRNs really are de rigueur.

So the public notice does not appear to cure any of the defects which we have previously noted with the Commission’s process for revising Form 323, and it may put the Commission in a worse position than it was in before. We shall have to wait and see how events continue to unfold.