Mark May 18, 2017 as the day the FCC starts to say goodbye to a rule that’s been on the books since FDR was President and World War II had yet to reach its apex. That’s when the Commission, at its May Open Meeting, will open “MB Docket No. 17-106.”
That’s Washingtonian for the elimination of the main studio rule, and the docket’s opening means anyone that wishes to make ex-parte presentations will need to file a copy of any written presentation (or a memorandum summarizing any oral presentation) no later than the close of business Monday (May 1).
The action is being taken by Acting Chief of the Media Bureau Michelle Carey.
What does MB Docket No. 17-106 seek to accomplish?
At present, the Commission’s main studio rule requires every AM and FM radio station and every UHF and VHF television station to maintain a main studio located in or near its community of license.
As the Pai-led FCC sees it, when the rule was conceived nearly 80 years ago, local access to the main studio was designed to facilitate input from community members as well as the station’s participation in community activities.
Today, we have something called the internet — and “net neutrality,” which has emerged as the FCC’s biggest topic of discussion in recent memory.
“Widespread availability of electronic communication enables stations to participate in their communities of license, and [allows] members of the community to contact broadcast radio and television stations, without the physical presence of a local broadcast studio,” Carey argues.
In addition, because the Commission has adopted online public inspection file requirements for AM, FM, and television broadcast stations, community members will no longer need to visit a station’s main studio to access its public inspection file, Carey notes.
Thus, the NPRM would accomplish the following:
- Tentatively conclude that technological innovations have rendered a local studio unnecessary as a means for viewers and listeners to communicate with or access their local stations and to carry out the other traditional functions that a local studio has served.
- Tentatively find that the main studio rule is now outdated and unnecessarily burdensome for broadcast stations and propose to eliminate it.
- Propose to eliminate existing requirements associated with the main studio rule, including the requirement that the main studio must have full-time management and staff present during normal business hours, and that it must have program origination capability.
- Seek comment on how to ensure that community members have access to a station’s public file that is not online if the station no longer maintains a local main studio.
- Propose to retain section 73.1125(e) of the FCC’s rules, which requires each AM, FM, TV, and Class A TV broadcast station to maintain a local telephone number in its community of license, or a toll-free number.
- Seek comment on the costs and benefits of eliminating the main studio rule and on any alternative proposals, such as whether to eliminate the rule for only a certain subset of stations, such as those in small markets or those with few employees.
A change in the requirement that the main studio have full-time management and staff present during normal business hours and that it “must have program origination capability” could trigger the most debate and discussion. While program origination capability will likely disappear, given technology, leaving a radio or TV station unmanned during business hours could potentially present threats to Homeland Security and business harm, including being thrown off the air by an outside party.
Access to the public file, absent of any station staff present during regular business hours, will also likely generate much chatter.
IS ‘GSB’ TO THANK FOR NPRM?
A major Washington, D.C. communications law practice on April 19 filed a Petition for Rulemaking with the FCC that seeks the initiation of a proceeding that would repeal the radio an TV Main Studio Rule.
Thus, it appears that Garvey Schubert Barer‘s Media, Telecom and Technology Group, is somewhat responsible for getting an NPRM on the matter on the May Open Meeting agenda.
GSB contends that adoption of this proposal “is meant to recognize the technological and economic realities of today’s broadcast marketplace – that stations can serve their communities while realizing substantial and necessary cost savings by maintaining fewer offices and smaller staff.”
But, the D.C. law practice’s petition was dismissed as moot, as noted in footnote 23 of the NPRM.
Even so, the firm’s support of main studio rule modernization is not far off from the member of the Commission likely single-handedly responsible for the NPRM. That’s because Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly has been the chief advocate on Capitol Hill of such things as killing ownership sub-caps and slaying the main studio rule.
Speaking in late March at the Hispanic Radio Conference in Fort Lauderdale, O’Rielly reiterated his argument that the Commission’s Main Studio Rule no longer makes sense.
“While the requirement can be waived for good cause, and often is waived for noncommercial stations, these waivers are hardly ever granted to commercial ones,” O’Rielly said. “It’s time to take another look at our approach to collocation proposals.”
As one of his top priorities is to “remove outdated and unnecessary burdens imposed by the Commission,” Pai is likely expected to support O’Rielly’s push.
In a speech delivered Tuesday at the 2017 NAB Show in Las Vegas, Pai singled out the main studio rule as the “first regulation set for modernization.”
This means that the end of the main studio rule comes down to whether or not it will be seen on a 2-1 party-line vote, or on a 3-0 unanimous decision with the support of Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.