FCC Proposes Cable, Satellite, Radio Database Extension

NPRM Follows Petition by Campaign Reform Groups
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The FCC is proposing to extend the FCC's online public file, including political file, requirement to cable, satellite and radio.

In response to a petition filed by campaign finance reform groups seeking that extended online filing, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Thursday (Oct. 30) circulated a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to that effect for a vote by the other commissioners.

TV broadcasters already have to file records of political ad buys to a searchable, FCC-hosted database (the FCC says it has had millions of hits on that database), but the FCC held off extending that requirement, and other public file requirements--like EEO, children's TV and more---to cable and satellite operators, which are all still required to keep those files available for public inspection locally.

According to an FCC official speaking on background, the item tentatively concludes that the public file requirement, including political files and their ad buys and prices, should be extended to cable, satellite, satellite radio, and broadcast radio, with a phase-in for cable and radio, as there was for TV stations.

A timetable has not been proposed for that phase-in, but the idea would be to have the larger entities go first, followed by smaller ones, and perhaps have some cut-off below which the requirement was waived. The NPRM asks what that size dividing line should be and whether there should be some people at the smallest end of the scale who should be excluded altogether.

Satellite and satellite radio would have no phase-in, since they are effectively only three entities, Dish, DirecTV and Sirius/XM.

As with the TV station online requirement, the FCC is not expanding the public file reporting requirement, simply asking them to put the same information online. Cable operators had asked that the FCC consider contracting some of those requirements—channel numbers, headend locations--before requiring the online filing, and the NPRM asks whether that should be the case.

In fact, the official agreed with the characterization that the NPRM essentially signals the FCC wants to make this change, then seeks input on how best to do it. So there will be more opportunity for input.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association pointed out in its comments on the petition that some cable operators--Time Warner Cable is one of them--already post political files online and asked the FCC to take that into account. It is. The official said the FCC had noted that and thought there might be a way to make that accessible through the FCC Web site.

Also as with the TV station filing requirement, the NPRM tentatively concludes that cable, satellite, and radio will not have to upload any old political file information, only going forward.

The TV station phase-in included an impact review after a year to decide whether to extend it to all stations, but it has not been decided whether to have a similar review this time around.

Asked whether the public file requirement would be applied to linear over-the-top video providers if the FCC redefines them as MVPDs, the official said no.

Currently, only TV stations are required to post their political files online to an FCC database, but the FCC In August asked whether that requirement should be extended, seeking input on a petition to that effect filed by the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation.

The NPRM is responsive to that petition, but it is adding radio stations, which the petitioners did not ask be included, it is responsive-plus, as it were.

In August, the FCC opened a docket (14-127) on the petition and sought comment. Broadcasters were fine with it. "Broadcasters wholly support regulatory parity between video providers’ online public and political file requirements," the National Association of Broadcasters told the FCC in its comment.

The campaign finance reform groups see enhanced disclosure of political ad files as one way to help counter the flood of so-called "dark" money expenditures by third-party groups that followed the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case lifting limits on federal election spending by corporations and unions, spending that can be made through such groups.

Political files are records of political advertising purchases made by the media outlets, what they cost, and who made them, though Sunlight and the other petitioners argue the FCC also needs to tighten disclosure requirements on who is actually funding the ads, rather than just the name on the contract.

The FCC limited "initial" implementation of the online filing requirement to TV stations, and even more initially only the top four TV station in the top 50 markets when it adopted the online filing requirement in August 2012. The requirement was extended last July to all TV stations, as had been initially planned. The Commission explained at the time that there was an insufficient record to extend the requirement beyond broadcast television, but signaled that extension could be coming, saying starting with television licensees would "ease the initial implementation of the online public file."

"The Proof wil be in the pudding, but this has been a long time coming," said Sean Vitka, federal policy manager at the Sunlight Foundation. "The FCC has acted incredibly quickly," he said. The petition was filed July 31, and comment was opened only a week later (Aug. 7).

"We're not surprised to see this coming, and we plan to participate fully in the proceeding on behalf of ACA’s members," said American Cable Association spokesman Ted Hearn.