With the August 2 effective date of the online TV public file rule just a couple of days away, more information about the FCC’s system is bubbling to the surface.

As we reported on Friday, this morning (Monday, July 30) the FCC presented another demonstration of its online TV public file system.  Peter Tannenwald, who attended the July 17 demonstration at the Commission, sat in on this one, too.  Good thing he did, since today’s show provided more details about the operation of the public file system than had previously been made generally available.  Below you’ll find a list of some of the more salient take-home points Peter took home.

Also, even though the revised public file rule still hasn’t technically taken effect, the FCC has already waived the political posting requirement (probably the most time-consuming part) for one station. Read on for details about that development.

Helpful stuff to know (from the FCC’s 7/30/12 online presentation, as gleaned by Dr. Tannenwald):

To access the system, you’ll need to start with the FCC Registration Number (FRN) for the licensee of the station whose file is being uploaded.  (That point was made in the July 17 session, too.)  Each licensee may use only one FRN to access the upload system, although a company with different licensee subsidiaries may have a separate FRN for each sub. To permit multi-station owners to control access to their various stations’ separate account for uploading purposes, such owners will be able to assign different passwords to their different stations’ accounts. (That way personnel at Station WAAA can be prevented from inadvertently uploading information to commonly-owned-but-separately-operated Station WZZZ’s public file.) The FCC will assign the initial password, but anyone with the master FRN password for that licensee may then go online and change public file passwords for upload access.  [Blogmeister’s Update: Since this item was originally posted, we have been informally advised that the FCC’s system will automatically assign a separate upload access password for each station. If the licensee wishes to change that password, it can do so – but the system itself will create the new password. Ideally, the Commission will formalize all of this at some point.]

The public file system allows stations to use Dropbox and other similar non-FCC online cloud storage systems to gather documents before uploading them to the FCC’s system. If you want to use Dropbox, you will have to (a) create a separate Dropbox folder and then (b) download an app that allows exchange of documents between the FCC and that one Dropbox folder.  But watch your step – the drag and drop function from your computer or Dropbox onto the FCC’s website works well with many browsers but apparently has some problems (which the FCC is working to fix) with the most popular browser, Internet Explorer, especially versions 7 and older.

To upload materials to a station’s online file, stations will use the URL http://stationaccess.fcc.gov.  (We just tried and it’s not an active site as of July 30, 2012.)  To review a station’s online public file, members of the public will go to http://public-inspection-file.stations.fcc.gov.  (Also not yet active, as far as we can tell.)

Most of us are used to converting documents to .PDF format for submission to the FCC – mainly because the CDBS electronic filing system accepts only .PDFs and the ECFS system for filing rulemaking comments converts incoming documents to .PDF. The public file upload process, however, is different. Documents headed for the online public file must be uploaded in their native format, whatever it may be (e.g., MS-Word, Excel, WordPerfect).  FCC will take care of converting to word-searchable .PDF format.  If the document to be uploaded was initially created in .PDF, it may be uploaded that way – but it should be in searchable .PDFform. (Cautionary note: many .PDF writer programs do not create searchable .PDFs as a default. Check you’re your IT folks if you have any questions on this front.)

The station profile on the FCC’s website now includes the main studio address.  Remember that a main studio must as a general rule be staffed by at least two employees (one of them management-level) during the normal 40-hour business week. With the main studio address posted on the Internet, FCC inspectors (and others) will have no problem locating the studio for inspection purposes.

The Commission is advising that stations should probably keep back-ups of the documents they upload, just in case.  But stations do not have to maintain copies of uploaded materials at the station for the public to inspect – once the materials have been uploaded to the FCC’s online system, the station’s obligation to make those materials available to the public has been satisfied.  But remember that an on-site public file is still required for letters/communications from the general public for all TV/Class A stations, old political file documents for all TV/Class A stations, and newly-created political file documents for all TV/Class A stations except for affiliates of the Top Four networks in the Top 50 markets. Stations may voluntarily upload political file documents to reduce their on-site paper obligations. However, letters/communications from the public should not be uploaded because of privacy concerns (including especially the provisions of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)).

The FCC is not requiring stations to provide a computer terminal to allow the public to go to the FCC’s website.  Staff at today’s session recommended that stations post the URL of the FCC’s public file website on their own station websites.  Whether or not that recommendation can turn into a formal requirement isn’t clear (since it may not have been specifically addressed in the rulemaking proceeding leading up to the adoption of the online system).  But it is clear that the FCC wouldn’t object if those URLs were to get included on stations’ websites.

Important final advisory: The online public file system is still on track to go live on Wednesday, August 1, the day before the online filing requirement becomes effective.

The Commission is planning to provide another demonstration of the system tomorrow, July 31 at 4:00 p.m.  Given the additional information which has come to light since the July 17 demonstration, we’d treat tomorrow’s demonstration as Must See.   This is not conventional webinar. A special platform is used to display a computer desktop that is manipulated by the FCC. Audio is available only by telephone. Access information is available at www.fcc.gov/events/demonstrations-online-public-inspection-file-interface.  The FCC warns that “[p]arties must join the call before the scheduled start time.” Last-minute registration and dial-in were possible today, but there were only 190 participants on the line (possibly because of the late notice provided by the Commission). We don’t know when or if the capacity of the FCC’s telephone bridge might be filled.

Media Bureau waives political file uploading requirement

Even before the new online public file requirement could take effect, it’s been waived!  In a Memorandum Opinion and Order, the Bureau released three days before the effective date, the Bureau has let Station WHAG-TV, Hagerstown, Maryland off the hook as far as uploading any new political file materials goes.

As diligent readers will recall, the online public file rule requires that Top Four networks affiliates in the Top 50 markets must begin uploading all newly-created political materials starting August 2.  WHAG-TV is an NBC affiliate in the Washington, D.C. DMA, which is Market No. 8.  So WHAG-TV was directly in the crosshairs of the rule.

Hold on there, said the station.  It’s not the primary NBC affiliate in the DC market.  That distinction goes to WRC-TV, the NBC O&O in Washington.  In fact, WHAG-TV’s assignment to the DC market is really a matter of “happenstance”.  That’s because, back when Arbitron designated TV markets, Hagerstown was its own market and, trust us, it wasn’t in the Top 50.  (Actually, it was Market 192.)  When Arbitron got out of the TV market designation business around 1996 and the FCC shifted to Nielsen-prepared DMA rankings, Hagerstown got lumped into the DC market and so, too, did WHAG-TV.

But even when that happened, WHAG-TV didn’t embrace its new DMA home.  In 1998 it argued successfully that it shouldn’t be classified as being in any of the Top 100 markets for regulatory fee purposes – and the Commission agreed, possibly on the basis of the Television and Cable Factbook 1997.  The Factbook indicated that the number of DMA television households served by WHAG was “equivalent [to] a remaining market station.”  (WHAG also helpfully observed that, where each of the TV stations licensed to Washington, D.C. proper serve over 2.3 million households, WHAG serves less than a quarter of that number in the DC DMA.)

The Bureau agreed that WHAG really does serve a smaller market and that holding it to the requirements for Big Market stations would run contrary to the fact that the FCC had decided to exempt small market stations from the initial political file upload chore.  Accordingly, waiver granted, and the folks at WHAG are doubtless breathing a bit easier.  (But the waiver applies only to the obligation to upload newly-created political file materials; the station will still be on the hook to upload other, non-political materials.)