Issues/Programs List Requirements
September 30, 2014
On October 10th, every broadcast licensee must place in their public file their issues and programs list for the period covering July 1st through September 30th, 2014. Now would be a good time to refocus on your public affairs oriented programming plan and execute it for the final quarter of 2014.
Veteran broadcasters will remember the community ascertainment requirement that required licensees to interview community leaders, identify community issues of public importance and to develop and air programs responsive to those needs. That requirement was revised into the current issues programs list.
On a quarterly basis -- January 10th, April 10th, July 10th and October 10th -- all broadcast licensees are required to compile and place in their local public file an Issues and Programs List. The list must be maintained in the station's local public file together with all others for the license renewal period. It is important that this be done religiously and that each station keeps a careful record. Each licensee must make a certification that it has complied with this requirement for its renewal application and we are about to start a new renewal cycle.
The list must reflect "programs that have provided the station's most significant treatment of community issues" during the preceding three months. Although the Commission has ruled that the list is to contain all of the most significant programs the licensee has aired to address the listed issues, it has not defined the term "most significant programs."
However, if a program is not reported as significant, the licensee probably will not receive credit for it later. Therefore, broadcasters should compile a comprehensive and accurate issues and programs list. The Issues and Programs List should detail some of the community issues the station addressed during the preceding quarter and programming that gave the most significant treatment to those issues. While community leader interviews are no longer required, each list must include the licensee's best evaluation of the issues identified as important to its community of license and surrounding area, with a brief narrative explaining why those issues were chosen, a narrative description of the programming that addressed the issue, the program's title, duration, and time and date of airing.
In these days of targeted demographics and stiff competition it is sometimes difficult to remember that all Commission licensees have a responsibility to provide issue-responsive programming. The Commission has frequently stated that the gravamen of its public interest standards is responsive performance and that the key question is whether the licensee took steps to meet that obligation. Therefore, it is more important to place emphasis on quality rather than quantity of the issues and programs selected. The Issues and Programs List's function is to give the public sufficient information about each station's issue responsive programming to determine whether the station has fulfilled its programming obligation.
Broadcasters have wide latitude in determining what is an issue. The term "issue" has been sweepingly defined by the Commission as "[a] point of discussion, debate, or dispute, * * * [a] matter of wide public concern." In choosing issues to focus on, actual programming of other licensees in the community may be taken into account. Thus, for example, if your program format is not attractive to senior citizens and another station in the market programs for that audience and addresses issues of concern to them, each other station in the market need not program towards those issues. Though the Commission has done away with its formal ascertainment requirements, it is still advisable to meet with community leaders and members of the public to determine the issues they believe are of importance to the community. Should the station's license renewal be challenged, management's efforts at community ascertainment will be one of the key factors to determine whether the licensee deserves a "Renewal Expectancy." Generally, a competing applicant will be unable to prevail over the renewal application of a licensee that is granted a renewal expectancy.
No minimum number of issues must be identified. The FCC has stated, however, that a licensee whose lists include at least five issues will likely be able to demonstrate compliance with their issue-responsive programming obligation. The Commission has also recognized and taken into account the large variety of programming decisions and options, noting that a licensee might for example, choose to concentrate on fewer than five issues and cover them in considerable depth over the quarter. Other licensees may cover more than 10 issues due to the format and program length assigned to issue responsive programming. Even considering this statement, it is best that at least five issues be given significant programming treatment and that those issues and programs are noted and described in the quarterly list.
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.