Local broadcast stations have maintained public inspection files for decades. The files contain information such as maps of the station's coverage area, reports on children's programming, letters from the public, lists of important issues that station programming has addressed and extensive records of political advertisements. Any member of the public can visit the station (or other designated location in the community) and examine the file.
As technology and the industry have changed, so have the obligations of broadcasters. In 1984, for example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) eliminated the requirement that stations maintain complete program logs in the public file because it found that those requirements no longer served the public interest. In 1998, the Commission gave stations the option of maintaining all or part of their public inspection files in a computer database, rather than in a paper file. Today we live in a world dominated by digital technology where the requirement that stations maintain a local public inspection file, usually still as a paper file, appears increasingly outdated.
A recent FCC proposal to host television stations' public files in a centrally-accessible and uniformly-designed database, if properly executed, has potential benefits for stations and viewers. Broadcasters are concerned, however, that the online public file would actually become more burdensome and costly if it is in addition to, rather than a replacement for, the paper public file. Any effort to create and maintain a massive database containing all television stations' public files must be done in a way that will not needlessly divert station resources. Moreover, the FCC must be cautious of unintended consequences, such as market distortions, that could accrue if public file information is misused.
NAB recognizes that while parts of the public file can likely be uploaded with relatively few difficulties, other portions – such as the political file – raise very complex implementation problems. Political files are often very large and must be updated constantly during busy political seasons. For many television stations, maintaining their political files during a political season is a full-time effort, given that these files often contain thousands of pages of material.
For small and medium-sized broadcasters – specifically the 74 percent of television stations that qualify, by recent FCC estimates, as "small entities" subject to the Regulatory Flexibility Act – such an undertaking represents a significant burden. It has been estimated that these costs could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, which is a significant expense especially for smaller stations in rural areas of the country. The expense of complying with new regulations could divert resources from broadcasters' main mission: serving their local communities with news, weather, community information, emergency alerts and entertainment programming.
Due in part to concerns about the burdens on stations, the FCC, just over four years ago, decided it would not require stations to put their political files online. Now the agency is proposing to reverse that decision despite the significant burden on smaller stations. There are also unintended, but potentially very real, marketplace distortions and unintended consequences that could occur if the market sensitive information contained in the political file is made more readily accessible for one part of the video advertising market (e.g., broadcast TV stations) but not others that carry political advertising (e.g., cable, satellite and Internet).
Broadcasters want to ensure the public's access to stations' public files and seek to work with the FCC on a plan to achieve that goal without unnecessarily diverting scarce station resources away from service to local communities.