The Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition (the “Coalition”) respectfully submits the following reply comments in response to the Federal Communications Commission Order on Reconsideration and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.
The Coalition appreciates the Commission’s turning its attention to this issue and its efforts to restore the public inspection file rules to their original purpose: allowing the public to inspect this important information by requiring television broadcasters to place public file records online. Because of the ubiquity of electronic data processing and the increasing prevalence of internet communication, online publication of the public file records is not only significantly less burdensome than paper file maintenance, but it also provides better and easier access to the public file. In particular, 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. We also support the Commission’s proposal that the online file include records of sponsorship arrangements and broadcast resource sharing agreements.
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. Moreover, broadcasters stand to profit considerably from a windfall of political advertising dollars. 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.
A paper-only inspection file is increasingly anachronistic in a world where the vast majority of businesses take advantage of electronic data processing. However, broadcasters remain obdurately and inexplicably opposed to the inclusion of the political file in any online public file even though many have actively embraced the web as an alternate way to interact with their audiences. Instead, broadcasters argue that even given the significant technological advancements in computerized traffic systems and electronic filing, they should continue to maintain reams of paper and haphazard methods for updating and organizing their political files. These arguments defy logic, not to mention good business sense. Neo-luddism is no defense to the Commission’s reasonable efforts to facilitate public access to the political file. Every other industry has recognized that the internet and computers can significantly improve business efficiency. It is high time the broadcasters did as well.
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.
The Coalition also urges the Commission to adopt 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.
The broadcast industry opposes public access to “payola lists,” complaining that requiring online identification of sponsored content would place an undue burden on stations that would have to collect information on instances of payola in programming. This argument is not only unfounded, it is very troubling: under the Communications Act and attendant Commission rules, stations already are responsible for disclosing sponsored content in the syndicated, network, and locally originated programming that they air. Consistent with these obligations, broadcasters must already maintain these records for the purpose of providing on-air disclosure. That some apparently do not already meet this requirement raises broader and more serious concerns about broadcaster compliance with the sponsorship identification rules. For purposes of this filing, we will presume that broadcasters are not engaging in systematic evasion of sponsorship identification rules but currently collect this information as required. To that end, it would not be burdensome to upload these records to the public file.
Finally, the Coalition urges the Commission to reject broadcaster demands that the FCC first form working groups and pilot programs in advance of adopting and implementing these important measures. The FCC should not allow such dilatory tactics to impede the prompt adoption and implementation of online public file rules. This proceeding is over a decade old, and these issues have been discussed at length over multiple comment cycles. There is no cause to delay these proceedings further to re-hash or reconsider the same issues. The Coalition believes that, as the FCC transitions the public file from paper to electronic form, legitimate and constructive input from all interested parties could accelerate the implementation of these rules and address any technical glitches encountered as the process moves forward. But this input will better serve the interest and needs of the public if it is offered during the process of online public file implementation, rather than as a means of procrastination.
In conclusion, the Public Interest Public Airwaves Coalition urges the Commission to move expeditiously in adopting and implementing public file modernization policies that will increase the accessibility and usability of information that broadcasters are required to make available in their public files