FCC OKs Public Inspection File Changes


In an unanimous 3-0 decision by the FCC at its January Open Meeting on Tuesday (1/31), technology trumped the typewriter.

A Report and Order that would eliminate the requirement that commercial broadcast stations retain paper copies of letters and emails from the public in their public inspection file was affirmed by the Commission.

This puts an end to a requirement that has been enforced for 43 years. fcc2017

Officially designated as MB Docket No. 16- 161, “Revisions to Public Inspection File Requirements – Broadcaster Correspondence File and Cable Principal Headend Location,” the Report and Order also eliminates the requirement that cable operators retain the location of the cable system’s principal headend in their public inspection file.

In a statement on the Report and Order’s affirmation by the three-member FCC, Chairman Ajit Pai recalled a visit a few years ago to KKOW-FM in Pittsburg, Ks., one of the radio stations he listened to a lot while growing up.

“During my visit, the station’s staff showed me an imposing series of huge file cabinets filled with folders, each folder stuffed with paper,” he recalled. “It was the station’s public inspection files, dating back many years. When I asked how often members of the public came to inspect them, they laughed—I was the first that anyone could remember, and they had been with the station a long time. What they didn’t laugh about was the burden of maintaining all that paper. KKOW is a small station, and its staff are stretched thin handling programming, sales, technical matters, and … paperwork.”

Pai noted that the last factor is something “that falls within our bailiwick here at the FCC. We are fully ensconced in the digital age, but our rules still require many regulated entities to put a priority on pulp. That’s why I’m pleased that this Order takes a few steps—simple ones, perhaps, but important ones—toward modernizing our rules to match today’s realities.”

Pai singled out Commissioner Michael O’Rielly’s “diligent work to identify unnecessary paperwork burdens” in leading to the 3-0 vote.

“There is little, if any, connection between the correspondence file requirement and its purported goal of ensuring that a station serves its local community,” Pai added. “After this decision, television viewers and listeners will still be able to communicate directly with a station by letter, email, or through social media. The public will continue to be able to file petitions or objections concerning a television station licensee’s performance at the time the station files its renewal application. Stations will still have every incentive to serve their communities in an increasingly competitive marketplace. In short, getting rid of this requirement will simply allow commercial broadcasters, like the hardworking folks I met at KKOW, to transition to an entirely online public file and send those clunky file cabinets packing.”

NAB EVP/Communications Dennis Wharton commended the Commission for its unanimous approval of the Report and Order.

“NAB applauds the FCC for its bipartisan decision to eliminate archaic correspondence file requirements, and we thank Commissioner O’Rielly for his leadership on this issue,” he said. “The order serves as a strong demonstration of Chairman Pai’s commitment to curtailing burdensome regulations that hinder broadcasters’ ability to operate, create jobs and serve the public interest.”

Noted Communications Law attorney David Oxenford, a partner at Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP, says today’s action is only the start for an FCC already sailing on a new jet stream. “It is the first step of many that we will likely see from the new Commission to lift some of the regulatory obligations of broadcasters,” he said. “As Chairman Pai said, the action lifts regulatory burdens without harming the public interest.”

Streamlining the public rule files was the lone agenda item for the new FCC’s January Open Meeting.

— Adam R Jacobson


RBR + TVBR RELATED READ: Time to Ditch Paper Letters File