New FCC rule to add paperwork for TV, radio stations

By Kristin Regula | Jan 17, 2017

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) – Broadcasters can add a new regulation to follow when airing political advertisements.

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) – Broadcasters can add a new regulation to follow when airing political advertisements.

The Federal Communications Commission has now ruled that all stations, both TV and radio, must keep an extensive record of all political ads that are aired. While it may seem like the stations do so already, the recordkeeping that was being done before was too lax for activist groups that wanted to monitor the funds of various political campaigns, resulting in complaints filed against 12 TV stations in 2014. 

While this may seem like a long time, it’s par for the course where the FCC is concerned.

“Things taking a year or more is common,” Scott Flick, an attorney who practices communications law at the Pillsbury firm, told Legal Newsline.

The decision was made by the Media Bureau of the FCC, which is made up of FCC employees. Usually in cases like this, the commissioners of the FCC would each vote on whether to put new orders or laws forth for broadcast stations. 

Unfortunately for the FCC, the commissioners no longer have a tie-breaking vote due to the departure of Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. This leaves the FCC with just four commissioners, leaving room for 2-2 ties.

As for the order for broadcast stations to keep a more extensive record all political advertisements aired, it may cause more of a headache for broadcasters and the FCC with the amount of room people have to file complaints under the improved system. 

To start with, all the big news channels (i.e. ABC, CBS, NBC) have affiliate stations at the state level and in various cities across America. Another key component of the recordkeeping is that all political ads featuring issues that are of importance at the national level must also be filed. Otherwise, a station could receive a complaint for not focusing enough on national issues while campaign ads are being run.

While the difference between national and local issues appears to be cut-and-dry, that is no longer the case. Social media can quickly turn a local issue into a national issue. For example, the failed Heartbeat Bill in the Ohio State House quickly became a focus of the American people after news of it spread across social media like wildfire.

“The line between what is local and what is national is greatly devolved,” said Flick.

It is also unclear when the FCC will be back to making decisions instead of having the Media Bureau doing it. One of the other commissioners, Tom Wheeler, will also be stepping down after Inauguration Day. This will leave the FCC with only three commissioners. 

While this would be enough to break ties, a unanimous vote would still be required because there are less than five commissioners left. The current president-elect will have to pick two more people, and they would have to be confirmed by the Senate.  

“They won’t be up to full commissioning strength until May or June,” said Flick.

What is clear is that this new order for broadcast stations is going to cause a lot of paperwork. While some people just view paperwork as a nuisance, the amount of paperwork that can be generated over one campaign ad, let alone an entire election year, could yield more problems than solutions.

“It expands what they have to do,” said Flick. “The more things they have to put into paperwork, the more mistakes can be made.”

It is also unclear how this new order for broadcast stations will help the American people, he said. While having more information about where a politician is getting donations from is good, it’s not clear how having broadcast stations monitor it would help, versus the Federal Election Commission putting something into place instead.

“It’s creating paperwork for the sake of paperwork,” said Flick. “The FEC should regulate the flow of money, not leave the burden on the broadcasters.”

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