Commission proposes to eliminate obligations to include public correspondence in commercial broadcasters’ public files, headend location information in cable operators’.

Following through on a promise it made in January, the Commission has proposed to eliminate one element of its local public inspection file rules for broadcasters, and it has now proposed to do the same for cable operators as well. On the chopping block: for commercial broadcasters, the obligation to maintain in their public files copies of correspondence from the public concerning station operation; and for cable operators, the requirement that their public files include a listing disclosing the location and designation of the system’s principal headend.

The two to-be-dispatched rules have been on the books for decades. Their contribution to the “public interest” has, as far as we can tell, been indiscernible. Indeed, the cable headend disclosure requirement may have been contrary to the public interest – at least according to some cable operators who expressed concern for the security of their headends as long as the locations of those headends were, by Commission mandate, available to anyone and everyone. So tossing both of these rules is truly a no-brainer.

When it first indicated its intention to eliminate the public correspondence requirement for broadcasters last January, the Commission derisively observed that “it’s hard to imagine anyone ever visiting a station solely for the thrill of reading its mail.” And as to the cable headend disclosure rule, the Commission now says that “we do not believe that the general public has any need for or interest in this information.” For the record, we agree wholeheartedly with those assessments.

But the non-necessity of these rules is not a matter of recent origin. It’s unlikely to the point of total incredibility that, prior to January, 2016, members of the public routinely flocked to broadcast public files “for the thrill of reading” audience correspondence. The same is true of the public’s need for or interest in – or lack thereof – headend location information. So why weren’t these two rules thrown out years ago? (We could even ask how they got adopted in the first place, but let’s not go there just now.) After all, the Commission’s attention has been focused on the public file obligations of its regulatees repeatedly over the last, um, 20-25 years or more. If it’s so obvious now – as the Commission seems to indicate it is – that these rules don’t make much sense, how has that escaped the attention of previous Commissions – or this Commission up until now?

It’s all well and good for the Commission to embrace the high tech appeal of online public files. And if, in connection with that embrace, it concludes that some legacy rules (the broadcast public correspondence rule, for example) don’t fit comfortably into the High Tech Approach, it makes sense to jettison those inconvenient vestiges of an antiquated system. But let’s not forget that those rules are still on the books – and will remain on the books until this latest rulemaking is finally concluded. So while the Commission may smugly jest about the public not flocking to read audience correspondence, broadcasters will, at least for the foreseeable future, still be required to keep that correspondence in their public files, as they have for more than 40 years. Ditto for cable operators, who will still be required to make available to the public at large the locations of their headends.

While an apology for imposing useless obligations on entire industries for decades is probably too much to ask for, the Commission might at least have announced in its proposal that, pending conclusion of the rulemaking, it would waive compliance with the to-be-tossed rules. By leaving them in place despite their acknowledged uselessness, the Commission does little to encourage respect for its regulatory judgment.

Comment deadlines have not yet been established. Check back here for updates on that front.