“Local” no more – as of June 24, new “OPIF” will be up and running … but a demo can – AND SHOULD – be checked out NOW

Last January we reported on the FCC’s decision to expand its online public inspection file (now officially referred to as “OPIF”) requirement to include radio broadcasters, cable operators and satellite radio and TV operators, too. And now, according to the Commission, the system is ready for prime time: it’s officially available for testing now, and as of June 24, 2016, the first group subject to the expanded requirements will have to start to upload items. If you’re in that group and you haven’t had to deal with the joys of maintaining an online public inspection file up to now, be prepared: it takes some getting used to.

And all you TV licensees who may think that you already know the ropes – you’ve got another think coming. As of June 24, you’ll have to use the OPIF, and not the “online broadcast public inspection file” (or, as the FCC refers to it, the “BPIF”) that you’ve been using (although the FCC will take care of transferring your existing BPIF materials over the OPIF as of June 24). The Commission’s new OPIF system is a considerable expansion of the old BPIF. According to the FCC, the BPIF is “virtually identical” to the new and improved OPIF – BUT the FCC concedes that there are “some differences in the look and feel of the OPIF database”. In other words, even if it performs the same functions as the BPIF, the OPIF is a different animal in a number of respects.

All of which should encourage everyone who will eventually have to use the OPIF to get out to the test site the FCC is making available and start kicking the tires. At some point in the next month or so the Commission plans to present a webinar on the new OPIF, but our hunch is that that webinar will be most useful to folks who have already taken a lap or two through the test site first. (Check back here for updates on just when that webinar might happen.)

Importantly, the test site is just that – a temporary site where one and all can upload, delete, revise, etc. to their hearts’ content without having to fear that it will affect anything else, because it won’t. In fact, the whole demo site – and anything that might get uploaded to it – will be deleted once OPIF goes live on June 24. So if you’re a TV station that already has an ongoing obligation to maintain a BPIF, you should keep doing so even while you play, separately, with the OPIF.

Who needs to worry about this right away? All TV licensees who currently have a BPIF and everybody in the first group of regulatees newly subject to the online public file requirement. They’re the ones who will have to start using the OPIF For Real next month. Those include:

  • all cable systems with 1,000 or more subscribers (although some such systems do get a break of sorts, as discussed below);
  • DBS (i.e., satellite TV) providers;
  • SDARS (i.e., satellite radio) licensees; and
  • large market commercial radio stations with five or more full-time employees. In this context “large market stations” refers to stations located in any of the Nielsen Audio-defined Top 50 Markets . Importantly, the “five or more full-time employees” is to be determined on the basis of employment units, not stations. So where a station in a Top 50 Market is commonly-owned with one or more other broadcast stations in the same market that share at least one employee, and the station employment unit has five or more full-time employees, each radio station in the group will be deemed to be in the “five or more” category and, therefore, subject to the new requirements at the earliest time.

Of course, eventually all radio licensees will have to get on board with this, but they’ve currently got until March 1, 2018 before they have to have all of their legacy public file materials uploaded (and until they have to start uploading “new” political materials). Note that the second group, unlike the first group, will have to have all of the old stuff uploaded before they absolutely have to start uploading new items.

How do you get to the demo site? The URL the FCC provides for the demo site itself is https://publicfiles-demo.fcc.gov/admin/. But that takes you to the “Entity Sign-In” page, which asks for the Facility ID Number and the specific Passcode for the station whose file you want to play with. That may be a problem for anyone who has not had to access any BPIF heretofore, a universe that includes any radio licensee. To figure out what password is associated with each station, you would normally go to the “FRN Sign-In” page and enter the licensee’s FRN and FRN password. The next thing you should see should be a list of the licensee’s stations with Facility ID’s and separate alphanumeric (and case-sensitive) Passcodes for each station. Here’s the link provided by the FCC to the FRN Sign In page, but be advised that when we tried it around 6:00 p.m. on May 12, we couldn’t get it to work. Ideally any problems on that front will be corrected soon, because if you can’t figure out what each station’s Passcode is, the demo site won’t be much good to you.

What’s new with OPIF? We can’t say for sure, since the FCC hasn’t itemized all the changes. We did take a quick gander at the demo site and can attest that the interface is different for sure. In its public notice, the Commission has described a number of aspects of the new system that differ from the old, but we can’t say how noticeable, or helpful, those changes will be. Again, that’s what the demo period is for. Take it for a ride around the block and let us know what you think.

FCC reminder about JSAs and self-reporting of violations. The FCC’s three-page notice generally describes the timetable, mechanics and various changes relating to the OPIF. But at the very end of the notice, the Commission tosses in the following paragraph about the need to include joint sales agreements in the OPIF and the obligation to report any failure to timely upload any required material in the OPIF:

We also remind all commercial broadcast television and radio stations of their continuing obligation to place copies of all current joint sales agreements (JSAs) —attributable and non-attributable —into their local public inspection file, pursuant to 47 C.F.R. §73.3256(e)(16). This public inspection file obligation applies to both the brokering station and the brokered station(s). In addition, we remind station licensees that any failure to place required documents in a station’s public inspection file at the appropriate times must be disclosed to the Commission in the station’s license renewal application and could be subject to enforcement action.

(We omitted a footnote.) You have been warned. And the latter admonition will be important to keep in mind going forward, because the OPIF system will reflect when each item is uploaded. In other words, even if you don’t narc on yourself in your renewal application, the FCC will have ways of determining whether you were late in uploading many, if not most, documents that need to be in the OPIF. (This also means that you should keep a copy of every filing confirmation of items required timely to be in the public file. That’s because occasionally the automatic transfer system from an online filing will fail, in which event it will be helpful to have proof of timely filing. )

The whole notion of an online public inspection file will be new to the vast majority of radio broadcasters. That being the case, we strongly encourage them – and anyone else feeling a bit anxious about the arrival of the OPIF – to take another close look at our previous posts about online filing, as well as the FCC’s January decision imposing the OPIF obligation across-the-board.

And again, we encourage everybody to take advantage of the demo site as much as possible, and to attend the webinar when it happens.