Online Public File – One Year Later

Posted on February 19th, 2014 by

Now that we’re just over a year removed from the FCC’s full implementation of the online public inspection file for full-power and Class A television stations, we thought it might be helpful to capture a few kernels of wisdom, along with some cautions and warnings.

First and most important is that the FCC staff can not only determine the date, but also the time of everything you upload into the public file, as well as every form or application a station files with the FCC that automatically finds its way into the public file.  That information is a truth serum of sorts, as it provides an easy tool for the FCC staff to “test” your license renewal certification that all items were timely placed in the public file.  It is therefore paramount that stations upload the required items on time, or for those automatically uploaded items, that stations make the required FCC filings on time.

Second, excel spreadsheets have presented upload issues.  Stations have reported problems when uploading an item to the public file that is or contains an excel spreadsheet, only to revisit the public file days later to discover that the upload never made it.  At that point, a corrected upload shows a placement date in the file that exceeds the applicable deadline.  If at all possible, try to upload all documents in PDF format, even if you are keeping track in excel. Simply convert the excel spreadsheet to PDF before uploading. If you are unable to do so, then after uploading your excel file, always check back – using the publicly accessible link to the public file, and not your password-access – to be sure the document(s) that were uploaded actually appear in the file.

Third, as noted above, replacing something in the file can lead to an inability to easily prove that a document made it to the public file on time.  If something has been uploaded that was incomplete, or there is some other reason a station needs to substitute another document for one already uploaded, it is far better to simply add the additional document to the file, rather than remove the first one and replace it with a new one.  By doing so, a station can prove that the original was timely uploaded, and that the date/time of the replacement file does not control the question of timeliness.

Fourth, a note or two about keeping a “lean” online public file.  Back in the days when the public file was kept on paper at the station main studio, it was not uncommon (in our experience) for public files to contain much more than was required by the rules.  Station personnel were understandably leery of removing anything from the file and just left everything in it.

Well, it was one thing to leave too much in the file when the likelihood of a visitor actually coming to inspect the file was very small.  But now that the file is accessible by anyone at all hours of the day or night, and the FCC has an online complaint filing system and a willing cadre of “public interest” groups that have anti-broadcast agendas, the potential exposure is magnified tenfold.

It’s true that the FCC won’t fine a station for having items in the public file that do not belong there.  But it’s also true that greater accessibility by the public to the file increases the likelihood of complainers.  Given that, the public file should only contain the documents required by the rules.  Stations have two choices for Commission-linked documents – they can either “toggle” them as “on” or “off”, which leaves them in the computer file but limits public accessibility and viewability to only those items that are “on”. For documents that stations upload themselves, the only way to get rid of a document is to put it in the trash, completely removing it from the file.  No matter what the document, be careful to avoid removing something that should not be removed.

A “lean” file, containing only what is required, is the best course, especially in the transparent world of online public files.

Finally, here’s something you may not know.  Anyone can subscribe to an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed specific to your station so that they are notified and can track every time your station uploads or removes anything from the public file.  In fact, those RSS feeds can be made specific to a particular folder within a station’s public file.  Transparency is one thing, but enabling software that allows tracking by station public file or folder is transparency on steroids.  Your need to be on “alert” regarding the public inspection file cannot be emphasized enough.  Here’s a thought — subscribe to your own station’s public file RSS feed so you can track/double-check progress and compliance.