FCC 375

The end of newspaper notices for proposed broadcast deals is now a step closer after the Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to advance a proposal that, if adopted, would abolish the requirement that radio and television stations buy ad space in local newspapers to alert the public of a proposed sale. Stations would still be required to make on-air announcements and post notice on their websites. That online notice would directly link to the application in the station’s online public file hosted by the FCC.

Tom Nessinger, a Senior Counsel in the Audio Division, told the Commission that the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (MB Docket Nos. 17-264) drafted by the Media Bureau adopts rules that better reflect the way the public accesses information. It would also reduce costs and burdens on stations, he added, telling commissioners that if a station doesn’t have its own website, another “locally-targeted” website would do for the online notice requirement. Nessinger said the proposal would also “simplify” the required on-air announcements.

The proposal includes the outline of a script that stations could use when producing what would be a 30-second spot. It includes a station’s call letters, the type of application being filed, and tells listeners how they can access the petition and file comments on the FCC website. The proposal would require a station to air the on-air announcements at least once a week between 7am and 11pm during four consecutive weeks. If the station broadcasts in a language other than English, the FCC would require that language be used in the announcement. If a station is off the air it would still need to comply with the online posting requirements.

The proposal appears to have the backing of all five commissioners as written. Commissioner Brendan Carr said the move is consistent with the FCC’s broader effort of “recognizing the existence of the internet” as a way to reduce costs on stations so they can invest in local news gathering efforts.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has expressed doubt about some media modernization proposals in the past, said the shift away from newspaper notices was a “smart effort” to update the notice requirements. Fellow Democrat Geoffrey Starks said he’ll be looking for assurances that the notices will reach as many people in local communities.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said he “strongly supports” the proposal and would like to see the changes take effect as soon as possible. He said he’ll be on the watch for any comments submitted that look to add “burdensome” elements to the required disclosures, such as adding to the on-air scripts or “compliance burdens” that he thinks would be nothing more than “litigation traps” slowing down the modernization move.

“The FCC needs to eliminate or modify any and all unnecessary government burdens so traditional broadcasters can fully compete against their competitively unregulated rivals who are taking a larger share of scarce advertising revenues within the markets served,” said O’Rielly. “Refusal to provide even a modest amount of breathing room risks suffocating the regulated industry.”

The comment period deadlines will be set once the NPRM is published in the Federal Register.

It has been nearly a year since the Commission opened the proceeding. It released its first draft last October. The idea drew criticism from public interest groups who argue it’s an essential tool for the public to challenge broadcast license applications, but broadcasters have universally supported the proposal. Radio and TV operators said the newspaper classifieds are no longer a way to reach the vast majority of Americans. Hoping to jumpstart the stalled rulemaking, the National Association of Broadcasters has sent a letter to the Commission reiterating its support for the proposal.

The FCC has been considering changes to the disclosure requirement since 2005 but it took no actions. More than a dozen years later, internet usage has only grown and agency staffers now believe a more aggressive streamlining is possible. The Commission has in recent years shown a willingness to move toward online disclosures. It voted in 2015 to give broadcasters more options in how they meet contest rule obligations, including allowing station contest rules to be posted on the web.