The future of the LPTV and Translator Preservation Act doesn’t look so bright after a leading House Democrat said it “would add unnecessary complexity” to the FCC’s incentive auction next year. “Adopting this bill will create new delay at a time when the auction framework finally appears to be coming together,” Calfornia Rep. Anna Schoo told a House subcommittee.
The prospects for GOP-backed legislation to help low-power TV and translator stations survive the FCC’s incentive auction next year appeared uncertain Thursday after one leading House Democrat—and a prominent public interest group spokesman—charged that the draft bill could throw a monkey wrench into the auction itself.
“Low power television stations provide a very important public service in communities around the country. . . but giving the FCC new instructions when they are well into the design and the development of the most complex spectrum auction ever conducted I think would add unnecessary complexity,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., during a hearing before the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee.
“I strongly recommend against consideration of this bill,“ added Harold Feld, SVP for the Public Knowledge watchdog group, during the hearing. “Adopting this bill will create new delay at a time when the auction framework finally appears to be coming together.”
But Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said his draft bill at issue—the LPTV and Translator Preservation Act of 2014–would simply pre-empt the agency from ignoring the impact that the auction could have in putting translators and LPTVs out of business altogether.
“Every once in a while, Congress breaks out in common sense,” Barton said. “This is a common sense bill.”
Translators and LPTV stations are under the federal government’s gun because the FCC’s incentive auction next year doesn’t provide the low-power stations with the same sort of protections that full-power TV stations get under the auction regulations.
Full-power TV stations that opt not to sell their spectrum during the auction next year have the right to continue broadcasting, even if the FCC has to move to another channel to do so. But translators, which are used to get over-the-air signals into areas that a full-power station can’t reach with its own signal, and LPTV’s, which often provide niche services, don’t have a right to sell their own spectrum during the auction, and they could be forced off the air if the FCC opts to repurpose their channels for wireless services during the auction and they can’t find new channels to broadcast on.
Barton’s draft bill would essentially require the FCC to “consider the benefits” that low power stations provide and “where possible, avoid the termination” of the stations “as long as such avoidance does not adversely impact” the auction, the bill says.
The draft bill also would permit the low-power stations to “request to operate at reduced power or from a different transmitter location” to avoid going dark, assuming that can be done without violating other agency rules.
“While LPTV and translator operators and their audiences would like to see much more done, the LPTV and Translator Preservation Act is a step in the right direction,” said Louis Libin, executive director of the Advanced Television Broadcasting Alliance, a group representing translators and low-power stations, during the hearing.
Libin also said that 1/3 or more of the nation’s more than 5,000 LPTV and translator stations “are now at risk of being shut down by the FCC because of the manner in which it has decided to conduct the broadcast incentive auction.”
Public Knowledge’s Feld said his group “generally agreed” with the draft bill’s sentiments that the low-power stations provide valuable service but that the FCC is already committed to helping the stations where possible.
“Passing new legislation, even if it is only intended to re-enforce what the FCC is already committing to do, will re-introduce new uncertainty and delay at precisely the wrong time,” Feld said.
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., the subcommittee’s chairman, said Feld had “far more confidence” in the FCC than he did.
“My message here is I don’t want a runaway FCC that simply squishes them (LPTV and translators) because they can,” Walden added. “I want to send a clear message, without screwing up the auction, that they (FCC officials) need to be thoughtful about this.”
Said Eshoo: “I don’t want anybody squashed in this either. . . (but)none of us want to throw sand into the gears.”
”There are some issues here,” Eshoo added. “I think it’s a question of how it’s done and how we thread the needle.”
In a statement, the National Association of Broadcasters said Barton’s bill recognizes the important service LPTVs and translators provide to millions of Americans.
“As the FCC proceeds with the incentive auction rulemaking, the commission must be evaluating more than just broadband when it looks at implementing the statute,” said Dennis Wharton, an NAB spokesman, in a statement. “The Spectrum Act (authorizing the incentive auction) is designed to achieve a balance between broadcast and broadband, and this bill serves as a strong reminder of that balance.”