Notes on the Enforcement Action Database

I’ve written a long-overdue overview of the Enforcement Action Database. It’s a pretty simple explanation of what the numbers mean (which isn’t much, really) and how they are collected and compiled. 2006 marks the tenth year of data collection, and yet the information remains so sketchy that the big picture is still pretty much inconclusive.
2005 was a record-setting year in terms of the raw number of enforcement actions, but that’s partially because the FCC’s become somewhat more transparent about its activity and now routinely makes the issuance of warning letters public (in hopes of having a deterrent effect). Additionally, field agents tend to be making multiple visits to stations before escalating the enforcement protocol.
For example, the FCC issued two $10,000 Notices of Apparent Liability in December. Both detail at least three visits made to each station before the decision was made to move ahead with a fine. Each visit, plus the NALs themselves, constitutes a data point. Thus the two stations account for at least eight entries in the Database. Throw in the fact that these enforcement cases stretched over two years (2004 and 2005) and you can see how things get complicated.
So while the FCC is undertaking a growing number of enforcement actions, are they touching more stations? I’ve never bothered to count that, but the answer is probably yes. Agents are spending more time in the field and they’re following through more quickly on the warning steps of the enforcement protocol. But the number of NALs, forfeitures, and raids dropped precipitously in 2005 as compared to the year before, which seems to suggest that the agency’s devoting more time and resources into making a show of force in the field than into escalating cases to levels with material consequences.
I like the fact that the number of states in which enforcement activity was reported increased. It’s the clearest indicator of a spreading phenomenon.