WASHINGTON: This morning’s demonstration of the Federal Communications
Commission’s new online public file interface was not so easy to access online.
The commission’s live streaming portal was either malfunctioning or
overwhelmed, rendering the webcast unavailable until it was well under way.
When it did come up, Greg Elin, the FCC’s chief data officer, was saying that
the interface works with both Firefox and, with the exception of a “couple of
things,” in Internet Explorer.
Elin said the commission “organized components of the public inspection file
for easy navigation,” and has provided help screens with videos. He showed a
logo modifications page and a history page using a commission computer screen
projected on a wall display that was indistinguishable in the webcast. Elin
said the demo illustrations would be posted on the commission website for
replay in higher resolution.
He proceeded to demonstrate how a TV station staffer could drag and drop
multiple documents into the FCC database simultaneously. It will accept all
common document formats—Word, html, .pdf and so forth. Elin said the
commission has a generic policy of converting all documents into .pdfs to
prevent accidental transmission of viruses.
A question was posed about large documents, which have had to be broken up to
upload to other FCC databases. Elin said the public inspection file database
would be able to handle uploads of up to 50 MBs.
“We’re not anticipating problem,” he said.
When the rules go into effect Aug. 2, they will apply initially only to Fox,
CBS, ABC and NBC stations in the top 50 markets. Elin said the commission
recognized that these stations would have a lot of paperwork to upload over the
next six months, and might be filing every day.
Realizing that being able to drag-and-drop multiple documents might still be
cumbersome for these stations, the commission took a suggestion from the NAB to
implement, Dropbox, a file-hosting service that allows the creation of a
special folder that synchronizes on multiple computers, so it shows the same
contents on all of them. Multiple users may be logged in simultaneously for a
single station; more than one Dropbox account can be associated with a single
station; and/or a single station may have up to three accounts.
The FCC intends to have common naming for folders in the database, but it will
not define a nomenclature for individual document types.
To prevent the system from crashing, Elin said all broadcasters would be put
on dedicated hardware, separate from the public access portal. The system will
also have “some redundancy” in the cloud,” he said.
The commission is looking into password protection on the station access side,
possibly tying it to the Consolidated Database System, or creating a unique FCC
Registration Number. Elin also talked about an “algorithm” developed at the
FCC to find documents already filed with the commission that belong in the
public inspection file, and to identify those that have expire.
Stations will not have to change record configurations, for example, a single
document for each purchase of political airtime. The commission intends to
support whatever type of record keeping stations currently practices, Elin
The demonstration was the first since the commission approved a rule last April
requiring broadcasters to move their public inspection files online. Up to now,
the files had to be kept in hard copy at a station’s main studio, where
citizens could review them upon request.
The files must contain the station’s license; any applications filed with the
commission, construction permits, waivers, pending renewal applications and
related documentation. It also must have contour maps--illustrations of
coverage area, studio and transmitter locations, and any documentation related
to an FCC investigation or complaint. A station’s most recent ownership report
must be included, as well as affiliation agreements, corporate documentation
such as bylaws, voting rights, etc.; mortgage and loan agreements, and
management consultant contracts.
Other required material includes Equal Opportunity Employment documentation, a
copy of the FCC’s guide, The
Public and Broadcasting; public correspondence, quarterly programming
and children’s TV reports, time brokerage agreements, donor lists, must-carry
and/or retransmission election, DTV consumer education activity reports and
records of public notifications announcing availability of the inspection file.
Commercial stations must also keep copies of any written agreements made with
local viewers or listeners, and a record of political advertisements sold.
This last item, the political file, provoked heavy opposition from the
broadcast industry. The political file includes a complete record of a request to buy airtime made on behalf
of a legally qualified candidate or for a campaign issue.
“The file must identify how the station responded to such requests and, if the
request was granted, the charges made, a schedule of time purchased, the times
the spots actually aired, the rates charged, and the classes of time
purchased,” The Public and Broadcasting states.
“The file also must reflect any free time provided to a candidate.”
Broadcasters are required to offer their lowest unit rate charge to political
candidates, thereby revealing to competitors what they are charging for
airtime. The National Association of Broadcasters has sued the FCC over the
requirement to publish the information online, claiming it will substantially
harm stations’ ability to compete, particularly with cable operations not
subject to the same disclosure. The FCC says since the information is available
to the public already, making it available online will not make a difference.
A motion for an emergency stay filed by the NAB is pending with the U.S.
District Court for the D.C. Circuit.
The commission has stepped up its enforcement of its public inspection file
rules since 2000, when it issued just four fines for violations. Nine were
issued in 2010, and last year, the commission issued 29. This year, a total of
17 were issued as of June 15. Virtually all were issued to radio stations,
which tallied up $253,000 in fines for multiple violations including incomplete
public inspection files, operational infractions and failure to maintain
emergency alert system gear.
~ Deborah D. McAdams