Local Public Files: Their Contents, Inspection, Reproduction And Retention
June 11, 2013
Broadcasters frequently ask for guidance for compliance with the requirements of the station's local public file. Confronted with a certification requirement in renewal applications, licensees are reminded of the importance of public file compliance. The Commission requires that each broadcast licensee maintain a local public and that it be open to inspection by any member of the public.
The Commission has repeatedly emphasized the importance of a complete and accurate public file. It relies in major part on on-site inspections by regional inspectors to monitor compliance with this requirement and it is frequently the first and most important non-technical item on an FCC inspector's checklist. This is a frequent area of FCC enforcement and fines.
It cannot be stressed too emphatically how important it is to assure that each station has complied, in detail, by including all of the required contents in its public file. Each broadcaster station employee should know the licensee obligations and rights regarding requests to inspect and/or reproduce the public file.
Location of the Public File
Location: A broadcast station's local public inspection file must be located at its main studio, wherever located. Applicants for new stations or for a change of community of license of an AM station, though, may locate their public file either in the proposed community of license or at a proposed main studio which meets the above criteria.
The "main studio" of a station must be more than the location from which most of its business is conducted or from which most of its programming originates. To qualify as a main studio, a location must maintain program origination and production facilities and a full-time management and staff presence during business hours, and provide local or toll-free telephone service from the community of license.
The main studio may be located either within 25 miles from the station's community of license reference coordinates, or within the principal community contour of any station, of any service, licensed to the community of license. Special rules apply when the location of the file is outside of the community of license.
FCC Website for TV Online Public File: All television stations licensees or applicants are required to post all public file materials on the FCC public file website, with the exception of letters and e-mails from the public, which must still be retained at the station's local public inspection file. A television station licensee or applicant must also place its political file on the Commission's website until the end of its retention period.
A station not in the top 50 DMAs, and any station not affiliated with one of the top four broadcast networks, regardless of the size of its market must comply with this requirement after July 1, 2014, for any new political file material. Any political file material prior to that date, shall continue to be retained at the station's local public inspection file until the end of its retention period. The FCC will automatically link any materials already maintained by it in its other databases, but it is the obligation of the licensee to assure that this has been done. Further discussion of FCC Online Public File requirement, see Section III below.
Electronic Public Inspection File
Broadcasters may choose to maintain all or part of their public file in a computer database provided that a computer terminal is made available at the file location for the use of members of the public. If the station maintains a website, it is also encouraged (but not required) to post their files on the web, but this option does not replace the fundamental obligation to maintain a paper file or electronic terminal. Material in the public inspection file shall be made available for printing or reproduction upon request made in person, and for a reasonable cost and the licensee may require guarantee of payment in advance.
Items Required to be Kept in the Public File
Commercial and Noncommercial Stations
Authorization. A copy of the current FCC authorization to construct or operate the station, together with any documents reflecting modifications or conditions imposed upon the authorization. These documents must also be posted at the transmitter principal control point. All waiver requests and authorizations must be retained as long as a waiver is in effect. A renewal application granted for a short term must be retained until final action is taken on the next renewal application.
Retention Period: Until replaced by a new authorization.
Applications and Related Materials. All pending applications tendered for filing with the FCC together with related materials. If a petition to deny has been filed against the application, the file must also include a statement that such a petition has been filed, including the name and address of the petitioner. For applications subject to a hearing, copies of the initial and final decisions must also be included.
Retention Period: Until final action has been taken on the application, except that applications for which waivers have been granted must be retained for as long as the waiver is in effect, and short-term renewals must be retained until final action has been taken on the next renewal.
Citizens Agreements. Certain written agreements with citizens groups. It includes agreements that deal with goals or proposed station practices but does not reach common commercial agreements.
- Retention Period: The term of the agreement and any renewal or extension.
- Contour Maps. A copy of any service contour maps submitted with any application filed with the FCC, together with any other information in the application showing service contours and/or main studio and transmitter location.
- Retention Period: So long as these materials reflect current information regarding the stations' operation.
Ownership Reports Contract and Related Materials. A copy of the most recent, complete ownership report filed with the FCC, together with subsequent certifications of continued accuracy and related materials. The public file must also contain a copy of all contracts listed in the ownership report including articles of incorporation and bylaws for corporate entities, or a listing of such contracts and instruments; any correspondence between the station and the FCC relating to ownership reports; and all documents incorporated by reference. If a list of contracts is maintained, copies must be provided to requesting parties within 7 days.
Retention Period: Reports: until a new, complete ownership report is filed. Contract copies: so long as the contract is in effect. Lists: until replaced by an updated list.
Political File. Each station's public file must include a political file comprised of a log (or copies) of all requests to purchase broadcast time: (a) made by or on behalf of a legally qualified candidate; or (b) which communicates a message relating to any political matter of national importance, including messages about a legally qualified candidate, any election for Federal office, or a national legislative issue of public importance. The political file must include the following information:
- A record of all requests for broadcast time along with a notation of whether the request to purchase broadcast time is accepted or rejected by the licensee
- The class of time purchased
- The date and time on which the broadcast is aired
- The rate charged for the broadcast time, including any rebates given to candidates
- The name of the candidate, office, election or issue to which the communication refers (as applicable)
- If a request is made by or on behalf of a candidate, the name of the candidate, the authorized committee of the candidate, and the treasurer of such committee
- In the event of any other request, the name of the person purchasing the time, the name, address and phone number of a contact person for such purchaser, and a list of the chief executive officers or members of the executive committee or board of directors of such purchaser
- In addition, licensees must also keep a record of any free time provided to or on behalf of candidates in the political file. Licensees are not required to keep records of general requests for information on rates and the availability of time.
- Documentation should be placed into the political file as soon as possible ‑- at least within 24 hours. The file should also be kept current as to any changes in the required information (such as a rate adjustment or if a rebate is given).
- Retention Period: Two years.
EEO Public File.
Except for employment units with fewer than five-time employees, on each anniversary of the date of filing a renewal application, licensees must place in their local public inspection files (and post the current report on station websites, if station has one) the following information covering hiring and activities during the preceding year:
- The job title of all full-time hires;
- The name, address, contact person and telephone number of each recruitment source used to fill each vacancy (including each organization entitled to automatic notification);
- The recruitment source that referred each full-time hiree;
- The total number of interviewees for full-time vacancies during the preceding year, the total number of interviewees referred by each recruitment source; and
- A list and brief description of each supplemental outreach initiative undertaken.
Form 397 Mid-Term Report for station employment units comprised of 10 or more full-time employees.
Form 396 Broadcast Equal Employment Opportunity Program Report, filed with the last renewal by all broadcast stations, including those that are part of an employment unit with fewer than five full-time employee.
- Retention period: Until grant of the next renewal or license assignment becomes final (post only current report on website).
The Public and Broadcasting. Public and Broadcasting -- A Procedure Manual. 2008 edition from: http://fjallfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DA-08-940A2.pdf
- Retention period: Until replaced by an updated edition.
Issues/Programs Lists. For commercial TV, Class A, AM and FM stations, a list of the programs that have provided the station's most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding calendar quarter. Each list must include a brief narrative at least describing what issues were given significant treatment and a description of responsive programming, including the time, date, duration and title. Lists must be placed in the public file on January 10th, April 10th, July 10th and October 10th, reflecting public affairs programming for the preceding calendar quarters. [Note: This requirement does not pertain to non-commercial or Class D FM, stations or those whose programming is wholly "instructional."]
- Retention Period: Until grant of the next renewal becomes final.
Local Public Notice Announcement. Certification of the dates, times and texts of pre-filing and post-filing broadcast renewal announcements, within 7 days of the last day of broadcast of the local public notice of filing announcements.
- Retention Period: Until final action on the renewal application to which they refer.
FCC Investigations or Complaints. Materials relating to any matter which is the subject of an FCC complaint or investigation (and not relating solely to private disputes) of which the licensee has been advised.
- Retention Period: Until notified by the FCC that the material may be discarded.
Related Material. In addition to each of the above categories (and those separately listed below for commercial and non-commercial stations), licensees are required to include all exhibits, letters and other documents filed with or received from the FCC pertaining to any of the required materials. Also to be included are any materials incorporated by reference and not otherwise maintained in the public file. For example, if a revised ownership report states "on file/no change" in response to a question, then the file must include the earlier report(s) in which the information can be found.
Commercial Stations Only
Citizen Agreements. Written agreements primarily of a non-commercial nature between a broadcaster and one or more citizens or citizen groups which deal with goals or proposed practices affecting station operation in the public interest, such as programming and equal employment opportunities. It excludes common commercial agreements concerning advertising, unions, employment, personal services, network affiliation, syndication, program supply, etc.
- Retention Period: For the term of the agreement, including any renewal or extension term.
Letters and E-mail from the Public. All written comments and suggestions received from the public regarding operation of a station unless the writer has requested anonymity or if the licensee believes that the content is defamatory, obscene or otherwise inappropriate for public review. E-mail must also be included if sent to a publicly-advertised e-mail address or to station management (but not staff members' personal e-mail), either by placing paper copies in the file or providing the public with a computer diskette or access to a computer terminal on which the e-mail can be viewed. Note: Only one sample copy need be retained of identical communications, together with a list identifying all sending parties.
- Retention period: Three years from receipt.
Time Brokerage Agreements. Both the brokering and brokered station must place a copy of every agreement involving time brokerage in their respective public files, regardless of market. Confidential or proprietary information (generally limited to financial data) may be redacted.
- Retention Period: As long as the agreement is in effect.
Joint Sales Agreements. A copy of an agreement for the joint sale of advertising time involving the station, in the same or differing markets. Confidential or proprietary information (generally limited to financial data) may be redacted.
* Retention Period: As long as the agreement is in effect
Class A TV Eligibility [Class A TV Only]. Documentation to demonstrate that the Class A TV station broadcasts a minimum of 18 hours per day and broadcasts an average of at least 3 hours per week of locally produced programming each quarter.
- Retention Period: Until grant of the next renewal becomes final.
Children's Programming Reports [TV Only]. Quarterly reports on FCC Form 398, to be placed in the public file by January 10, April 10, July 10 and October 10 of each year. By this date, a copy of the Report for each quarter is also to be filed electronically with the FCC.
- Retention Period: Until grant of the next license renewal becomes final.
Records Regarding Children's Commercial Limits [TV and Class A TV Only]. Also to be placed in the public file by January 10th, April 10th, July 10th and October 10th are records sufficient to permit substantiation of the station's certification of compliance with commercial limits on children's programming for the previous quarter.
- Retention Period: Until grant of the next license renewal becomes final.
Must Carry or Retransmission Consent Elections [TV or Class A TV Only]. A statement of the election.
- Retention Period: For the duration of the three-year election period to which the statement applies.
Non-Commercial Stations Only
Donor Lists. Lists of donors supporting specific programs.
- Retention Period: Two years.
Must Carry Requests [TV Only]. Requests for mandatory carriage on any cable system.
- Retention Period: For so long as the request applies.
DTV Transition Education Reports. For full-power noncommercial educational TV broadcast stations, both analog and digital, on a quarterly basis, a completed Form 388, DTV Consumer Education Quarterly Activity Report. The Report for each quarter is to be placed in the public inspection file by the tenth day of the succeeding calendar quarter.
Online Broadcast Public Inspection File System:
All television stations must upload NEW general public file and political file materials to the new FCC public file at that point. These stations must have had all existing material in the general public file online by February 2nd, 2013. All new materials in the political file must be uploaded immediately; however materials in the local, paper political file prior to August 2 was not required to have been uploaded.
Television stations in the top-50 markets that are affiliated with the top-4 networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX) must also keep their political public file on line at the FCC website.
Documents already online at the FCC will not have to be uploaded, only those documents that are not already online. Also excluded from the online public file is letter and e-mail correspondence from the public as well as sponsorship & shared services agreements.
Political file posting rule will apply to all other stations as of July 1st, 2014. The FCC has announced these new features to the on-line public file portal.
Authorizations – Stations can create folders to upload files that relate to their authorizations, such as reports required by conditions placed on their licenses by the Commission.
Equal Employment Opportunity – New, pre-generated folders are now available for stations to upload the annual reports required by and described in Section 73.2080(c)(6) of the Commission's rules and information bearing on any ongoing inquiry, audit, investigation or complaint that concerns EEO and of which the licensee is aware.
Applications – New, pre-generated folders are now available for each type of application stations might file (renewal, assignment, etc.), so licensees can separately upload any additional material that relates to each type of application, including notices of petitions to deny and other supplemental information.
Ownership – A new, pre-generated "Contracts and Agreements" folder is now available so stations can upload the lists of contracts/agreements required to be placed in their public files by Section 73.3526(e)(5) of the Commission's rules if their most recent ownership report no longer reflects all such arrangements. Licensees can, in their discretion, upload the actual documents in lieu of the lists. Licensees may also upload any additional documents relating to their ownership or ownership reporting obligations.
Children's Television Programming Reports -- Stations can upload any additional documentation related to children's television programming that is not otherwise contained in the quarterly reports.
Political File Terms and Disclosures – A new, pre-generated "Terms and Disclosures" folder is now available. If the documents placed by stations in the political files folders contain terms, abbreviations, or other language that require explanation for a full understanding of the documents, licensees should upload such explanations, including any keys or legends, to this folder. If documents uploaded to the other political files already contain such explanations, keys or legends, nothing need be uploaded here.
The Commission links to the public inspection file are as follows: for access by the public – http://stations.fcc.gov; for access by TV broadcasters – https://stationaccess.fcc.gov. See a demonstration of the FCC Online Public Inspection File Interface http://www.fcc.gov/events/demonstration-online-public-inspection-file-interface
Inspection and Reproduction of the Public File.
The entire public file (whether on paper or read from a computer database) must be available for public inspection at any time during regular business hours. Prior appointments may not be required, nor can an "off-the-street" request be refused on the ground of inconvenience. Personal identification (name and address only) may be required from any person requesting to review the public file, but information relating to organizational affiliation, the purpose of the request or other matters may not be requested. A station staff member should be assigned to supervise a requester's examination of the file to ensure its integrity (but not in a way that could be construed as intimidation).
If a person becomes abusive or destructive, either when requesting inspection or during the inspection itself, the requester may (and should) be denied further access to the material. Also, if a person spends far more time than is reasonably necessary to examine and analyze the file materials, they may be required to have the materials of interest reproduced.
If any party desires material in the public file to be reproduced, the copies must be made available within seven days of receipt of the request. The station must honor all requests for reproduction made in person.
If the public file is located outside the station's community of license, then it must also honor telephone requests from residents within the service area (grade B contour for TV, 0.5 mV/m contour for AM and Class B FM, 0.7 mV/m contour for Class B1 FM and 1.0 mV/m contour for all other FM) for everything except the political file. The station may, but is not required to, also honor requests made by mail.
The requesting party may be required to pay all reasonable costs of reproduction, including the direct copying costs as well as associated expenses such as the allocated salaries and overhead of staff necessary to supervise the file materials during reproduction. The station, however, is required to pay postage to mail the copies to the requestor.
To facilitate requests for public file documents, stations whose public files are located outside their city of license are required to mail to callers within the service area noted above a copy of the current edition of "The Public and Broadcasting" manual. Both the copy and the mailing must be at the station's expense and free of charge to the caller. In addition, station personnel are required to assist callers within the service area by answering any reasonable questions about the actual contents of the station's public file (except the political file).
As an example, the Commission indicates that, if asked, stations should be prepared to describe to a caller the number of pages and time periods covered by a particular ownership report or children's television programming report, or the types of applications actually maintained in the station's public file and the dates they were filed with the FCC. As previously mentioned, the Commission also encourages (but does not require) stations to place the descriptions of their public files on any Internet home page that they maintain.
Although radio and television have been substantially deregulated, the public inspection file is one of the few means by which the Commission maintains a sense of local service by requiring broadcasters to be responsive to their communities of license. Accordingly, the Commission tends to enforce its public file rules quite strictly.
This column is provided for general information purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice pertaining to any specific factual situation. Legal decisions should be made only after proper consultation with a legal professional of your choosing.