Yesterday, the FCC announced its agenda for its May open meeting to be held on May 25. Among the items on the agenda is a proposal to adopt a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking to abolish the obligation that broadcasters maintain in their public files copies of letters and emails from the general public about station operations. These letters are the last vestige of the physical public file for TV broadcasters who several years ago migrated the rest of their public file to an online system maintained by the FCC (see our summary of the TV online public file obligations here). The letters from the public were deemed too sensitive to put online, as they could reveal private information about the writers of those letters. Thus TV stations must still maintain a paper file at their main studio. Radio broadcasters too will soon be moving their public files online. In the order adopting the requirement for an online public file for radio (see our summary here), the FCC proposed that the same paper system for letters from the public be maintained. However, it did note that there were calls to abandon entirely the requirement to maintain these letters in a separate file, and promised to initiate this rulemaking to look at that issue.
Commissioner O’Rielly has been a major proponent of that change, tying the issue to one of the security of broadcast stations and personnel. In his concurring statement to the Online Public File order, he noted that the abolition of the requirement that broadcasters maintain these letters from the public would eliminate the need for many broadcasters to open their stations to all comers who enter on the pretext of inspecting the public file. In a blog post, he noted the need for security at broadcast stations. The recent events at Sinclair’s Baltimore TV station, where an individual with emotional or mental issues triggered a police shoot-out at the station, and last year’s tragedy involving the Roanoke TV crew, highlighted the very real threats to safety that broadcasters face every day. Minimizing these threats by removing one pretext for people to enter broadcast studios unchallenged is an important consideration in these deliberations.
And it is not as if these letters from the public are important documents that are important to the general public. Any survey of broadcasters will reveal that virtually no one comes to a broadcast station to view these letters – especially at TV stations who have otherwise put the contents of their public files online. Maybe in the past, the letters could serve as a way to gauge the general public’s reaction to a broadcaster’s programming. But today such gauges are available in a far more public and far more immediate manner – through social media. It is hard to imagine that any controversial programming decision by a broadcaster goes unnoticed on Twitter or some other online platform available to everyone everywhere who has access to the Internet – a click away from the rest of the station’s public file on the FCC website.
Keeping letters from the public in a portion of their public file has never been required of noncommercial broadcasters, and there has never been any outcry that such stations are not responsive to their audiences. That is the very essence of the business of broadcasting – responding to their audience’s needs and desires. Getting rid of the requirement that these random letters be kept for public inspection simply recognizes that the FCC does not need to mandate that broadcasters listen to complaints from their customers.
Getting rid of the public file then raises the next issue for the FCC – is there still a need for an accessible main studio? Certainly, broadcasters need to be accessible to residents of their service area for the transaction of business, to get ideas on news and entertainment programming and to otherwise serve their communities. But in this day of instantaneous communication, does someone at even the smallest station need to be physically present 8 hours a day just in case someone wants to visit the station instead of calling or sending an email to react to some station or community event? That question has already been raised in the AM revitalization proceeding (see our summary of the issues here), and is actually raised in the FCC’s agenda for the May meeting as the same proceeding will also consider if cable companies should need to continue to publicize the location of their headends for public visits. The main studio question may well need to be raised more generally for broadcasters in the future if it is not addressed in the current order. We will soon see the Commission’s specific proposals for broadcasters at their May 25 meeting.