If you’re a full-power or Class A TV licensee (for convenience, we’ll refer to that universe as “TV licensees” here), you’d better get used to it: your quarterly issues/programs lists, once consigned to the comfortable privacy of your on-site local public inspection file, will soon be available for review anywhere, anytime, by anyone with an Internet connection. If you’re absolutely, positively 100% confident that your lists would pass muster if subjected to rigorous scrutiny, congratulations. You may not need to read further.

But if you haven’t really thought too much about your lists for a couple of years and are concerned that they could use some spiffing up before their online debut, read on. Our goal here is to provide some guidance about (a) the Commission’s specific requirements relative to issues/programs lists and (b) how to get your next list uploaded to the FCC’s online TV public file system.

Important reminder: for TV licensees, the next issues/programs list is required to be uploaded to the FCC’s online public file system no later than OCTOBER 10, 2012.

What goes into an issues/programs list?

The specifics, such as they are, are set out in the Commission’s local public inspection file rules (Section 73.3526 for commercial licensees, 73.3527 for noncomm’s). Here’s what the rules require TV licensees to place in their public inspection files:

[E]very three months a list of programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period. . . .The list shall include a brief narrative describing what issues were given significant treatment and the programming that provided this treatment. The description of the programs shall include, but shall not be limited to, the time, date, duration, and title of each program in which the issue was treated.

So your list must include, at a minimum, a “brief narrative” describing (a) the “issues” to which the station gave “significant treatment” during the preceding quarter and (b) the programming that “provided this treatment”. The description of the programming must include, at a minimum, certain nitty-gritty specifics about the broadcast of the programming – time, date, duration and title.

Note that, according to the rules, the issues/programs list need not include all of a station’s issue-related programming, but rather just the “programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues.” What does any of that mean – “significant treatment”, “community issues”, “programs”? That’s generally your call to make as licensee, but be prepared to be second-guessed by critics who may have other ideas about what you coulda/woulda/shoulda been doing.

While the rule refers to “programs”, it does not prohibit inclusion of PSA’s which, in the eyes of some, may not amount to full-fledged “programs”. If a station has devoted a considerable number of PSA’s to one or more “community issues”, it would probably be well-advised to include reference to those PSA’s in the list. Historically, the Commission has suggested that a station may not rely solely on PSA’s to meet its supposed obligation to address local issues, but that doesn’t mean that a licensee with a substantial PSA effort cannot and should not claim credit for that effort.

Along the same lines, the term “programs” would not necessarily bar you from relying on news coverage of particular issues, including election campaign coverage.

The rules do not mandate any particular format for the presentation of these data. You can use lists or narratives or collections of documents or any other mechanism you like, as long as the end result contains the specified information. How long should the list be? That, too, is your call – but bear in mind that the list is supposed to reflect the programming through which the station devoted the “most significant treatment” to community issues. The shorter the list, the easier it will be for critics to suggest that the station hasn’t really been serious about “treating” community issues, whatever that means.

Once you have your list compiled, what do you do with it?

First, you will need to have the list in some digital format. If you simply type it up using Microsoft Word, you’d have it in as a .DOC document. If your list includes copies of programming records prepared in the course of production and broadcast, those might need to be scanned into .PDF documents, or possibly assembled into a single .PDF item. Some licensees may prefer using an Excel spreadsheet (i.e., .XLS) approach. The FCC’s system is supposedly designed to accept documents in any of the following file formats: .DOC, .DOCX, .HTM, .HTML, .PDF, .PPT, .PPTX, .RTF, .TXT, .XLS or .XLSX. Whatever format you use, make sure that you can locate the component file(s) on your local computer drive(s) easily.

According to the FAQ page at the FCC’s online public file site,

[s]tations must upload electronic documents in their existing or native format to the extent feasible. For example, if a required document already exists in a searchable format – such as the Microsoft Word .doc format or a non-copy protected text-searchable .pdf format for text filings, or native formats such as spreadsheets in Microsoft .xml format for non-text filings – broadcasters are expected to upload the filing in that format unless it is technically unable to do so.

It’s hard to tell exactly what that means, and it’s also hard to say that the FCC is in a position to enforce whatever it might mean – since the regulatory impact of an FAQ presumably lacks at least some to the clout of, like, an actual rule. Still, it appears that the Commission expects uploaded documents to be “in a searchable format”.

Note that the FCC has not mandated any particular file-naming convention. However, it’s always good to name your files in a way that allows the reader to figure out easily what’s in the file. (For example: [CALL SIGN].Issues-Programs List.[Quarter].[Year] should do the trick.)

Once you’ve got the list ready to upload, access the station’s online public records file. (If you’re still a bit sketchy on that process, check out our post here.) When you have successfully logged in, you’ll see a screen that looks like this:

In the menu options running down the left-side of the screen, click on “Issues/Programs Lists”. (We’ve helpfully highlighted it in red in the graphic above.) That should take you to a screen that looks like this:

Click on the red/orange-ish “Upload Documents” button in the middle of the screen. That should take you to this screen:

Click on the green button labeled “+ Add files . . .” in the middle of the screen. The system will then allow you to browse through your local computer drives to locate the file(s) that will comprise your quarterly issues/programs list. Once you have located those files in your local drives, you can simply drag and drop them into the page on the FCC website.

We understand that the FCC’s system will then take a couple of minutes to process your upload. Exactly what that processing entails is not entirely clear, but don’t be surprised if the uploaded file does not instantaneously show up in your online public file. Still, it would be prudent to check back in on your station’s file – from either the public or non-public side – within a couple of hours to confirm that the upload was completed and that the file(s) you meant to upload did in fact get successfully uploaded.

Good luck.

A couple of miscellaneous observations.

This is the first deadline that requires ALL TV licensees to upload a particular item by a particular date. There will be others down the line, but this is the first time that the Commission’s online public system will be tested with an industry-wide in-rush of uploads. Because of that, some hiccups in the system may occur. Be patient.

Also, note that, on the FCC’s online public file homepage, there is a constantly updated list of materials that have been uploaded to the system. When there is lots of upload activity going on, any particular station’s upload will likely appear on that list for just a couple of minutes. When activity is lower, uploads may remain on the list for a couple of days. Our guess is that, on October 10, the amount of time any station’s upload will stay visible on the FCC’s online list will be minimal, if that makes a difference to you.

Finally, let’s not lose sight of the oddity of the issues/programs list. While the rules do indeed require the quarterly preparation of those lists, the rules do not require that stations in fact air programs that “treat”, significantly or otherwise, “community issues”. While the Commission has historically asserted that some such obligation exists, in fact you will look long and hard – and unsuccessfully – to find any such requirement in the Commission’s rules or in the Communications Act. (Indeed, a strong argument can be made that the Commission could not in any event impose such a programming requirement.)

In this context, the issues/programs list may be seen as a regrettable effort by the Commission to indirectly regulate that which it does not – and arguably cannot – regulate directly, i.e., broadcast program content. Of course, the vast majority of broadcasters do provide plenty of important and useful programming devoted to local, regional and national issues, even though they are not technically required to do. And as long as they’re doing that, stations should be sure to use their issues/programs lists to highlight their efforts.