Public interest groups suggest FEC-like reporting system for TV stations

A couple of months ago we reported that the FCC had asked for comments on whether or not to extend the political file component of the online public inspection file requirement to all TV stations. You will doubtless recall that, when the online public file system was first put into place in 2012, only Big Four network affiliates in the Top 50 markets were required to upload their political file materials. Everybody else simply has had to continue to maintain those materials in their respective local public files. The FCC originally targeted July 1, 2014, as the date by which the online requirement would be made universal; the recent request for comments is designed to help the Commission decide whether that target date is still a good idea.

The initial response to the FCC request for comments was less than overwhelming. As of September 6, ECFS was showing a total of three comments filed. Of those, two (filed by the NAB and Gray Television, Inc.) advocated that the FCC hold off beyond July 1, 2014 on imposing the online political file burden on smaller stations in smaller markets. No big surprise there: based on their obvious familiarity with the operation of such stations in such markets, both NAB and Gray argued that forcing all TV stations, regardless of their size, to move their political files online would result in serious, unnecessary burdens.

The third set of comments came from an entirely different angle.

Submitted by a collection of three public interest groups – the Public Interest Airwaves Coalition (PIPAC), the Sunlight Foundation, and the Center for Effective Government (for now, let’s call them, collectively, the Public Interest Commenters – these comments urge the FCC not only to extend the requirement to all commercial TV stations, but also to institute an entirely new online filing format for political materials. In their view, the FCC should design and implement a filing process akin to the one used by the Federal Election Commission. (Of course, the FEC collects different information from different sources for different purposes than does the FCC, but what the heck – once you’ve seen one government agency, you’ve seen them all.)

The Public Interest Commenters, of course, don’t appear to have extensive experience with operating TV stations in small and mid-sized markets, but that hasn’t stopped them from telling the FCC how to regulate such stations. (Back in 2007 PIPAC designed and championed the dreaded Form 355 which, although initially adopted, mercifully never saw the light of day.) We here at CommLawBlog will also confess that we haven’t run that many stations, but we at least are in frequent touch with people who do. So we figured we’d bring the Public Interest Commenters’ latest proposal to everybody’s attention so that they could take a careful look at it and let the FCC what they think. (The FCC has set September 23, 2013 as the deadline for reply comments.)

So if you’re a TV licensee and you’ve got some time to spare, why not go to PIPAC’s demonstration site, kick the tires a bit, and let the FCC know what you think? If the proposed online filing system really would make everybody’s life easier, it would be good for the FCC to know that. But if the proposed system would impose considerable additional burdens – and, frankly, we suspect it would, but again, we don’t have a lot of first-hand experience here – the Commission should know that, too.