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By Lydia Beyoud
Jan. 22 — Trade groups representing radio broadcasters and cable operators both large and small are seeking exemptions from having to post public file information, such as the number and origin of political ad purchases on their channels, to the Federal Communications Commission's online database.
The FCC is set to vote on the final rules (MB Docket No. 14-127) at its Jan. 28 meeting. If approved, the rules would bring cable, radio and satellite TV and radio companies into alignment with TV broadcasters, who are already required to file the information online.
The National Association of Broadcasters said the FCC should exempt radio stations with five employees or fewer in order to avoid regulatory burdens. “Such stations are much less likely to air significant amounts of advertising,” NAB said in an ex parte filed Jan. 21. Thus, exempting those stations wouldn't jeopardize the FCC's goal of improving public access to information about political ads and other station details, it said.
The group also asked the FCC to phase in application of the online filing requirements, starting with commercial radio stations in the top 50 markets that have 11 or more employees.
The American Cable Association made its own request for a permanent exemption from the public file obligations for companies with fewer than 1,000 subscribers. Cable providers with between 1,000 and 5,000 subscribers should only have to produce certain records upon request. Failing to ease the proposal would constitute a new disclosure requirement “that increases compliance burdens on small system operators, and one that the Commission previously found was an administrative burden on this class of small cable systems when it established the ‘upon request’ exemption in 1999,” ACA said.
The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), which represents larger cable providers including Comcast and Cablevision Systems Corporation, reiterated its support for ACA's request for a permanent exemption, according to a Dec. 4 ex parte filing.
Yet an employee-based exemption might not be the best way to go, several public interest groups told the FCC in a Jan. 21 comment letter. The Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, the Sunlight Foundation and Public Citizen said the FCC should instead use a revenue-based test to determine if smaller radio stations should be exempt.
That's because of the use of joint sales agreements (JSAs), shared services agreements (SSAs) and other arrangements that allow broadcasters in the same market to share advertising and other resources. “Because of the increasingly common use of JSAs, SSAs, time brokerage and similar arrangements, it is often the case that radio stations with substantial audiences in major markets are staffed by other licensees and technically have as few as two full-time employees,” public interest attorney Andrew J. Schwartzman wrote on behalf of the groups.
If the FCC does decide to allow exemptions based on the number of employees, it should base it off of the total number of employees engaged in station operations where there is a JSA, SSA or other agreement in effect, the groups said.
Furthermore, no liability protections should be granted to cable operators whose third-party contractors make an error in reporting their advertising sales, the groups said. “Section 315(c) of the Communications Act makes plan that cable operators are ‘licensees' for the purposes of that provision” and cannot shirk their public interest obligations for accurate reporting of the information, they said. The ACA had sought such protections.
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