• Online Public File Rule Effective Date
  • July 11, 2012
  • Law Firm: Lerman Senter PLLC - Washington Office
  • On July 2, 2012, the Office of Management and Budget announced that it has approved the FCC’s rule obligating TV stations to upload significant portions of their public file to a Commission-hosted website. The rule will become effective on August 2, 2012. As we reported here, the new rule requires commercial and noncommercial television stations (including Class A stations) to maintain most of their public inspection file documents on a Commission-hosted website rather than as physical documents at their main studio. The FCC’s new online public file storage system is not yet publicly available.

    Implementation Dates

    Beginning August 2, 2012, all television stations must upload the relevant documents to the FCC’s website on a going-forward basis. The material to be uploaded from and after that date consists of all documents currently required to be maintained in the station’s physical public inspection file except: (i) letters and emails from the public, which must still be made available for inspection at the main studio; (ii) documents already filed with the FCC and available on its website (applications, Ownership Reports, children’s television reports, etc.); and (iii) the contents of the station’s political file, except as described below.

    By January 3, 2013, all television stations are required to have uploaded the historic contents of their public file (i.e., documents placed in the file prior to August 2, 2012).

    Political File Contents

    Unlike the other contents of the public file, the online posting obligations regarding political file documents are prospective only - stations will not be required to upload the historic contents of their existing political file online. The online obligations relating to political file materials are being phased in over the next two years. Affiliates of the four national networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC) in the top-50 markets are required to post the documents required to be maintained in their political file from and after August 2, 2012.

    This date may change because the National Association of Broadcasters has filed a request for stay of the effective date with the FCC and the federal court in Washington, D.C. pending court review of the rules. All other television stations are not required to post political file documents online until July 1, 2014; these stations must continue for the next two years to maintain a physical political file for public inspection at their main studio.

    As has been the case in the past, TV stations remain obligated to place documents in their electronic online political file “immediately,” absent unusual circumstances. Information in the political file that must be posted immediately includes final orders placed by candidates for specific schedules of time (including classes of time purchased and rates charged) or availabilities within a specific schedule of time. Stations are required to subsequently upload relevant reconciliation information about an order, including the times spots actually aired, details regarding “make goods” provided for preempted time, and rebates or credits issued, once that information is available. General requests by candidates for advertising availability and rates for a general array of time need not be included in the online political file.

    Recognizing potential problems with the online filing mechanism, the FCC’s new rules require stations to maintain a local electronic backup of the political file. The FCC has stated that it will provide a tool to allow stations to make electronic copies of their online political file from the Commission-hosted site. If the FCC’s online file becomes inaccessible, stations must provide any information pertaining to the political file to candidates, their representatives, other political time buyers, and any member of the public.

    In addition, the Commission recognizes that it had approved previously the practice of some stations to include only information concerning the spots/program times originally ordered by a candidate in their public file, with a notation that the station will provide immediate assistance and access to station logs or other records upon request concerning actual air time. The FCC clarified that it is not eliminating this precedent, but will require that all information now placed in the physical inspection file on a daily basis be uploaded to the online file on a daily basis.

    Additional Requirements

    The new rule does not require that documents be uploaded in a particular format, but requires that documents be uploaded in their existing format to the extent feasible. In addition, the Commission expects that stations will upload documents in a searchable format, if technically feasible.

    The FCC also reminded licensees that the online public file, just like the paper file, must be kept orderly and that unnecessary documents should be removed from the public file - both online and paper - in a timely manner.

    Stations with websites must include a link from their homepage to their online public file. Stations must also specify a station contact on their website homepage contact information that can assist persons with disabilities with issues related to the content of the public files.