By: David Oxenford, Wilkinson Barker Knauer, LLP
As expected, at its monthly open meeting May 18, the FCC started two proceedings of particular importance to broadcasters. The first looks at the abolition of the main studio rules. The second asks for comments on all of the other rules affecting broadcasters and other media companies to see which are ripe for appeal. For the most part, the proposals as adopted mirrored the draft orders released for public review back at the end of April, which we summarized here.
The proposal to review all media rules – referred to as the Modernization of Media Regulation – will look at all media-related FCC rules with the idea of eliminating or modifying those that no longer make sense in the modern media environment. Only the multiple ownership rules, already under review in separate proceedings (see our posts here, here and here) are excluded from this review. Comment dates for proposals to change specific rules are due by July 5, with replies due August 4. The two Republican commissioners supported this proposal. Commissioner Clyburn, the FCC’s lone Democrat, dissented from the adoption of the Public Notice launching the inquiry, not necessarily because she is opposed to review of existing rules, but because she felt that the notice presupposes that the public interest can only be achieved by abolishing rules that limit industry operations. She suggests that many FCC rules remain important – including EEO rules, Biennial Ownership Reports, and certain rules governing access to cable programming. The Republican commissioners, on the other hand, point to the efficiencies that can be gained by abolishing rules that no longer make sense, or which require filings that serve no particular purpose (see Commissioner O’Rielly’s statement here). No doubt, these differing perceptions of the rules will be reflected in comments filed by various parties in this proceeding.
The proposal to abolish the main studio rule very closely tracked the draft order that we summarized back in April, here, asking a number of questions about the impact that the abolition would have on station’s ability to serve their communities. A few additional questions were added to the final order, the most substantive of which dealt with the requirement that would be retained that stations maintain local telephone numbers that local residents can call to address issues about station operations or to respond to community needs and emergencies that may arise. Included among the new questions was the question of whether the phone line needed to be manned during all business hours, or perhaps even during all hours of operation of the station. Even if a live person is not required to answer the phone, the FCC asked whether there should be some requirement that all calls be answered within a given time frame, principally so that no emergency go unreported. In effect, if adopted, these would be new requirements that a broadcaster giving up its main studio would have to live with.
The apocryphal story of the station in Minot, North Dakota where no one was home when a train carrying dangerous chemicals spilled was brought up in one Commissioner’s comments, suggesting that a specific rule on response time was needed – even though the owners of that station have repeatedly said that the story was not true and the station was covering the emergency even though local authorities, working with some outdated contact list, didn’t know where to call. Regardless of the truth of that story, the issue remains the one that appears to be the most controversial on this issue – how will a station with no physical local presence maintain ties with its community. Broadcasters and other interested parties can file comments thorough a date to be announced 30 days after the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is published in the Federal Register, with reply comments due 15 days later.
These two proceedings again demonstrate that Chairman Pai is serious about his deregulatory agenda for the FCC. Interested parties should comment on these proceedings and stay involved so that their viewpoints can be reflected in the FCC’s ultimate decisions – and in connection with the next deregulatory proposals that may arise from the Modernization of Media Regulation proceeding.
David Oxenford is MAB’s Washington Legal Counsel and provides members with answers to their legal questions with the MAB Legal Hotline. Access information here. (Members only access).
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