As it had promised in its recent public file rulemaking, the FCC has issued a Notice of Inquiry to explore adoption of a standardized report to replace the current quarterly “issues/programs” lists. Although initially directed to television, the Commission notes that the requirements eventually will extend to radio as well, although possibly modified to address radio-specific concerns.
The Commission remains committed to its fundamental goal of making broadcasters more accountable to the public and to ensure that their programming is responsive to important local community issues. The reporting requirement is intended to foster a more active dialog based on improved access to programming information, while enabling the Commission to assess the effectiveness of its policies and avoid unnecessary regulation. After a decade of study, the Commission had proposed a form in 2007 which the industry challenged as overly burdensome. Rather than defend that form, the Commission instead now proposes to create a more streamlined version, while maintaining that a standardized format is needed to facilitate public review of relevant information.
To reduce the burden upon broadcasters, the Commission proposes replacing the expectation of reporting every relevant program during a calendar quarter with a sampling method, in which only a single week or two would be considered. These could be either full weeks or composite weeks – that is, a randomly-chosen Sunday, another randomly-chosen Monday, etc. To avoid the need to retain programming information for an entire quarter, the Commission proposes announcing the relevant week or days shortly after they will have passed. The Commission notes that an exception to the sampling method might be appropriate for electoral affairs, when a single week might not suffice to capture the extent of local campaign coverage. While the Commission denies that it intends to pressure stations into airing certain types of programming, it adheres to the notion of required reporting of specified categories. The Commission proposes to include news, civic and governmental affairs, electoral affairs, and possible breakouts of local programming in each of those categories. It recognizes that definitions to distinguish the categories must be developed and notes that a single program or program segment would be reported only once rather than in multiple categories. For television, the Commission further proposes reporting closed captioning, video description and other efforts to serve the disability community. No exemption is proposed for noncommercial educational stations.
Sensitive to industry paperwork burdens, the Commission asks generally about the level of detail to be required for each reported program or segment. Among the data being considered beyond title, length and topic are sponsorship, whether a program is first-run or previously-aired, and whether it is the product of a time brokerage or shared-services agreement. The FCC further proposes to enable licensees to supplement the form with further disclosures of other programming of value to the community that falls outside of the specified categories, such as emergency broadcasts, religious programs and anything else to meet a public interest obligation. A comment section could also afford an opportunity to discuss mitigating factors or other non-broadcast initiatives to serve the community.
In order to enhance the accessibility and usefulness of the reports, the Commission proposes that all information be submitted in a machine-readable, searchable format and seeks comment as to how best to implement this goal.
The Commission seeks comments that address the costs and benefits of its approach, balancing the probable public utility of the information collected against the burdens of producing it. Comments will be due 45 days after publication of the Notice of Inquiry in the Federal Register. You may obtain a copy of the Notice of Inquiry in MB Docket No. 11-189 from the Commission’s website at: http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-11-169A1.pdf.