Pubcasters fear FCC ruling could deter board members from serving

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(Photo: K2 Space/Flickr)

Public broadcasters are considering their options for reversing new FCC rules that they fear might discourage potential station board members from serving.

In a 3-2 vote Jan. 8, FCC commissioners approved rules requiring both commercial and noncommercial broadcasters to submit additional information about station officers and directors. Starting in December 2017, broadcasters will have to provide addresses, dates of birth and the last four digits of Social Security numbers for these station leaders. The commission says the information will help it identify attributable interests in stations and track diversity of station ownership.

Public broadcasters have opposed the change since the FCC first proposed it in 2009. Commercial broadcasters were previous supplying some personal information for station principals, though not Social Security information. Noncommercial stations were exempt.

“This is the nightmare we have been fighting against for years,” said Craig Beeby, University Station Alliance executive director, in a letter to the organization’s affiliate stations, which are university licensees.

Public broadcasters have argued that the rules should not apply to them because noncommercial board members, unlike commercial owners, are often appointed or volunteers, and board members do not have a financial stake in the station. They contend that board members may choose not to serve rather than supply personal information.

“Our primary point to the Commission was that you simply can’t prescribe to noncommercial stations the same ownership requirements that you do for commercial,” said Mike Riksen, NPR v.p. for policy and representation.

In comments filed in March 2015, NPR, CPB, PBS and the Association of Public Television Stations argued that the proposal would harm the FCC’s mission of increasing ownership diversity by “compromis[ing] the integrity of the data,” because board positions are not the same as commercial ownership positions. They also cited government data breaches as a reason that board members may be reluctant to provide personal information.

The requirement “will only serve to detract from the utility of the commercial ownership data collected, make any policies based on such data flawed, and unnecessarily discourage individuals from serving on the boards of public broadcasting stations,” the comment concluded.

In another comment filed in March 2015, 70 public TV and radio stations also opposed the proposal.

Beeby and Riksen said public broadcasters are now considering new ways to fight the ruling.

“We’re in the study period,” Beeby said. “We’re trying to determine how best to address this because how we’ve addressed it for the past seven years ultimately was not successful.”

Commissioner O'Rielly was one of three FCC commissioners to vote for new ownership reporting rules, although he expressed reservations about the burden on noncommercial stations. (Photo: U.S. Mission Photo/Eric Bridiers)

Commissioner O’Rielly was one of three FCC commissioners to vote for the new ownership reporting rules, though he expressed reservations about the burden on noncommercial stations. (Photo: U.S. Mission Photo/Eric Bridiers)

Riksen said statements by two FCC commissioners may offer hope that the FCC could alter the ruling. Commissioner O’Rielly, who approved in part and concurred in part, wrote that he had “reservations” about the new reporting requirements for NCE stations and questioned whether NCE boards should be considered license owners.

Commissioner Pai, who approved in part and dissented in part, wrote that he found most of the specific decisions “reasonable” but condemned the new NCE rules, writing: “On this question, I would give more credence to those public broadcasters across the country who run the day-to-day operations of their stations than those of us here in Washington, DC. And I would have the FCC bestow upon those volunteering their time to NCE stations across our country not the burden of unnecessary regulations, but our gratitude.”

In the meantime, Beeby recommends that stations contact their FCC legal counsel for advice on how the new rules might affect them.

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  • Aaron Read

    I’ve had pretty extensive conversations with both Craig and Mike about this topic, and I must thank them both for their patience with me and simultaneously apologize for not doing more during the comment period.

    It’s worth noting that the reason the FCC is pursuing this utterly insane idea is that they’re under a mandate to track diversity and minority ownership in broadcasting. Despite their best efforts, many, many people are still using the existing FRN (FCC Registration Number) incorrectly; it’s supposed to be one FRN per person, period, used across all their broadcast holdings. But for a variety of reasons, intentional and not, many people are using multiple FRN’s…thus negating the ability to track things accurately. Similarly, the “Special Use FRN’s”, which didn’t require SSN info, were being similarly “abused”.

    Hence the new “RUFRN” or Restricted Use FRN, which still includes SSN info, and the near-abolishment of the SUFRN. Plus the RUFRN will be tracked somewhat differently that will track the individual even if multiple RUFRN’s are used (intentionally or unintentionally).

    (note: IANAL and most of my understanding is taken from the excellent Broadcast Law Blog on the topic: http://www.broadcastlawblog.com/2016/02/articles/fcc-order-on-biennial-ownership-requirements-all-broadcasters-commercial-and-noncommercial-need-to-start-collecting-information-from-attributable-owners-and-directors-for-next-year/)

    I mention all this because while all the commenters against the RUFRN idea are, IMHO, absolutely correct…the problem is that nobody’s really come up with an alternative method that solves the FCC’s core issue of tracking diversity in ownership. Honestly, I don’t think the RUFRN solves the FCC’s core issue, either, but it’s what they’ve decided to go with, and absent a better alternative, it’s presumably what they’re going to stay with.