Media Bureau solicits comments on very recent petition for rulemaking – and expands inquiry beyond the petition.

Well, that didn’t take long . . . on a couple of levels. The Media Bureau has requested comments on a proposal to impose online public file requirements on cable and satellite operators. And the Bureau has gone the proponents one big step further by suggesting that radio stations as well should be posting their public files online.

The notion of online public files is, of course, of relatively recent vintage. Since August, 2012, TV stations have been required to post most of their public files to the FCC-maintained online system. Political file information was initially required to be posted only by Top Four network licensees in the top 50 markets . . . until July 1 of this year (yes, just a tad more than a month ago), at which time all commercial TV licensees joined the club. If you’re at all fuzzy on the history of the online public file, click here and just keep scrolling – we followed the whole process pretty closely.

Given the long gestation of the TV online public file, some observers (well, us, at least) expected that the FCC might let things settle down for a minute or two.

Surprise, surprise.

On July 31, 2014, three public interest groups (those would be the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation) filed a petition for rulemaking asking the FCC to expand the requirement to post political and other public file materials to the FCC’s online database to include cable and satellite systems. And a mere week later, the Media Bureau has asked for comments on the proposal.

What’s more, the Bureau has expanded the scope to include a proposal to include online public file posting by radio licensees as well.

The cable/satellite proposal probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. With the online reporting requirement extended to all commercial TV stations, reports had started to surface that a significant amount of political advertising was being directed to non-broadcast video media. The goal, it would appear, is to reach more or less the same viewing audience while avoiding the pesky online reporting that exposes to universal examination considerable detail about the amount of the buy and the identity of the buyer. By expanding the online requirement, the FCC would presumably disincentivize that work-around. (How radio broadcasters got invited to the party is unclear – they may just be innocent bystanders dragged into the action through no fault of their own.)

On the plus side, the Bureau’s notice does not mean that the imposition of new online reporting requirements is imminent. The Commission will first have to undertake a formal rulemaking petition, with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, comments and reply comments, and a Report and Order. But on the negative side, the Bureau’s notice clearly signals that some such changes are clearly on the Commission’s radar screen. The notice was issued barely a month after the political file uploading requirement expanded to include most of the TV industry. And even more startling, it was issued only a week after the petition for rulemaking was filed. (By way of contrast, we recently reported on the issuance of a notice requesting comments on a rulemaking petition that had been filed 18 months earlier.) All of these factors strongly suggest that this is on the fast track.

We would love to comment on what the Bureau has in mind here, but there just isn’t much in the public notice to chew on. It simply asks for comments on the proposal to expand the online public file requirement to cable, satellite and radio. (In fairness, it does acknowledge – in a footnote – that it may not currently be either feasible or desirable to include radio licensees in the online public file club.) It’s probably safe to assume that the FCC figures that it can and should simply set up its online database to include the additional groups, who would then presumably be subject to the same general upload processes . . . but we can’t say that for sure.

In any event, interested parties have until August 28, 2014 to submit comments on the petition, and until September 8 to file replies.