The Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition (the “Coalition”) respectfully submits the following Paperwork Reduction Act comments in response to the Federal Communications Commission Order on Reconsideration and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The Coalition supports the Commission’s decision to move forward with this important proceeding and for the commitment to bring broadcast disclosure in to the modern age by creating an integrated public file to be hosted online by the Commission. The public has waited far too long to access broadcast public files in a manner that reflects the technological realities of the 21st century. We commend the Commission for taking on the increased burden and responsibility for hosting such files itself, thereby maximizing access to information while easing the overall burden on the public and all other stakeholders.
The public file modernization initiative proposed by the Commission would promote the goals of the Paperwork Reduction Act and Communications Act by maximizing the utility of, and ensuring the greatest possible public benefit from, information collected by the FCC. Online access to the public file will encourage public involvement in monitoring stations’ performance and promoting dialogue between stations and their communities. It would also streamline management of these files and diminish many of the inconveniences and burdens associated with broadcasters’ maintenance of paper files. In short, these proposed improvements will reduce both paper and work for the public and for broadcasters.
The FCC has long recognized the vital role that broadcasters public inspection files play in ensuring that the licensing system functions consistent with the tenets of the Communications Act. When broadcasters fall short of their obligations or engage in outright violations of FCC rules, the public’s ability to alert the FCC by filing complaints or petitions to deny the renewal of ii a station’s broadcast license is essential. Without ready access to relevant information contained in broadcast public files, the licensing system would be undermined and the goals of the Communications Act would be subverted.
For too long, access to the public file has been decidedly inconvenient for the public. While that inconvenience may have been unavoidable twenty years ago, it is no longer necessary or justifiable. A paper-only inspection file is increasingly anachronistic in a world where the vast majority of businesses take advantage of electronic data processing. Online posting of broadcaster public files would enable the public to have greater access to stations’ public file information by providing 24-hour access to this information and address the many problems citizens currently encounter in trying to review a station’s public file. The impediments of geography, recalcitrant station staff, limited station hours, and copying costs are easily alleviated by technological developments and the relative ubiquity of internet access.
The Coalition strongly supports the Commission’s conclusion that the online public file should include major components of the existing public file, including the political file. Because of the unique role that broadcasters play in the electoral process, it is essential that the broadcast political file be made part of online public file. Broadcast political advertising plays a critical part in the election processes and can shape democratic outcomes profoundly. The political advertising information and disclosures included in the political file furthers the First Amendment’s goal of an informed electorate that is able to evaluate the validity of political advertising messages and hold to account the interests engaged in political advocacy. Online access to this information will better enable the public, journalists, researchers, and watchdog groups to reveal the true interests behind the purchases of advertising time, as well as track how often, to whom, and on what terms broadcasters have offered use of the public's airwaves for political purposes. Many broadcasters already maintain these records in electronic format and currently must print them out to put them in the public inspection file. By eliminating the paper filing requirement and replacing it with an online posting requirement, broadcasters could simply upload the very same documents in electronic format and save themselves the trouble of printing them out and filing hard copies. Placing this information online would not only streamline access to and management of the political file, it would also reduce the burden on broadcasters who often receive multiple requests each day for in-person access to this information during the election season. Those broadcasters that continue to rely solely or primarily on handwritten documents and manual updating of political files would do well to reevaluate their business practices with an eye to joining the modern world. Nearly every other industry has recognized the business imperative of streamlining their recordkeeping and communications through the use of electronic and networked means. It is high time these broadcasters did as well.
The Coalition also supports adoption of a proposal requiring licensees to submit a record of “pay for play” arrangements for inclusion in their online public files. This increased disclosure will help to address the well-documented shortcomings of fleeting, on-air disclosures. Online records of these arrangements will afford viewers the opportunity to view sponsorship information that they otherwise may miss. Additionally, the information will be useful for academics and watchdog groups seeking to aggregate this information in order to track the prevalence of payola in the broadcast television market. Broadcasters must already maintain these records for the purpose of providing on-air disclosure under the existing sponsorship identification rules. Assuming that they currently comply with these requirements, it would not be burdensome to upload these records to the public file.
Finally, the Coalition also supports much needed improvements to public file data through the submission of broadcaster shared services agreements. Access to shared services agreements is a critical transparency measure that will alert citizens to the existence of local broadcasters’ arrangements that may affect the quality, amount and independence of local news and information available in the community. Unless such agreements are available in the public file, it is exceedingly difficult for members of the public, or the Commission, to learn whether particular programming is generated by the station itself or is a product of an agreement with another entity, including a competing broadcast station. Broadcasters present no legitimate reason why shared services agreements should not be included in their public files, particularly given that the Commission and public interest groups agree that these types of agreements warrant more scrutiny – not less.