Advocates of low-power TV stations and translators have been worried that their interests will be ignored in the upcoming FCC incentive auction and spectrum repack. Now, however, the Government Accountability Office is being asked to study the situation and the hope is the results will help them win rights to continue operating in the auction’s wake — similar to the rights full-power broadcasters are already guaranteed.
Low-power TV and translator industry advocates are hoping that their fortunes will take a turn for the better in the wake of a request earlier this month by key federal lawmakers that the Government Accountability Office shine a light on the threat that the FCC’s broadcast incentive auction represents for LPTV.
Under the FCC’s existing auction regulations, the very survival of some of the U.S.’s more than 2,000 LPTV’s, low-powered TV stations that originate programming, and about 3,800 TV translators, which mainly retransmit the programming of full-power TV stations, is in doubt, because the FCC’s evolving auction regulations provide virtually zero protection for them, LPTV advocates say.
LPTV and translator advocates are hoping that the study, requested by Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) will help them win rights to continue operating in the auction’s wake — similar to the rights full-power broadcasters get under the regulations.
“We look at the GAO study as a huge win,” said Louis Libin, executive director of the Advanced Television Broadcasting Alliance, one of the groups that has been lobbying on behalf of the LPTV industry.
“Congress overlooked LPTV because they didn’t know the role it played,” said Mark Aitken, VP of advanced technology, Sinclair Broadcast Group, who has a seat on the ATBA board.
Aitken said that the fate of the low powers is important to Sinclair because the company uses more than 300 LPTVs and translators to reach viewers. In the Salt Lake City, Utah, and Medford, Ore., markets, Sinclair depends on translators and LPTVs to reach more than 30% of its viewers, he said.
“There is not any guarantee that any of these survive,” Aitken said.
Aitken also said the law puts the burden on the FCC to make all reasonable efforts to ensure that broadcasting is not harmed by the auction. “And that’s true for full power, and that’s true for low power.”
“We just want to remain whole,” Aitken added. “We don’t remain whole if the low-power industry is decimated.”
In their Oct. 1 letter to GAO, Reps. Barton and Eshoo said they were particularly interested in how many LPTVs and translators will be able to continue operating on replacement channels after the auction’s repacking of the TV band.
The two lawmakers also asked GAO to recommend ways that the FCC and Congress could “remedy adverse impacts” from the auction on LPTVs, translators and, “most importantly, on their viewers.”
Under the FCC’s incentive auction plan, the commission hopes to reallocate a large swath of spectrum from TV to wireless broadband by buying spectrum from incumbent TV stations in one auction and selling it to wireless carriers in another one.
The rules provide full-power TV stations with a variety of options for putting their spectrum up for sale in the auction.
According to an FCC-sponsored report released Oct. 1, in some markets full-power broadcasters may be able to reap hundreds of millions of dollars by relinquishing their channels in an auction that could raise up to $45 billion overall.
The FCC auction rules also provide guarantees that full-power broadcasters that choose not to participate in the auction will be able to continue broadcasting to their existing audiences in the auction’s wake.
In addition, the FCC regs provide reimbursement for full-power broadcasters that are required to move to new channels during the post-auction channel-repacking process. The repacking is needed to segregate the remaining TV spectrum from the spectrum that is being moved to wireless use.
But the FCC regs provide no similar protections for LPTV and translators — not even guarantees that they will be able to find new channels if the agency knocks them off their existing ones during the repacking process.
LPTV advocates say a major reason they don’t currently have auction protections — and also why they have little hope that the FCC will come to their rescue on its own — is that forcing them off the air makes it easier and less expensive for the FCC to clear spectrum to auction to the wireless companies.
“We potentially interfere with the plan by the FCC to give nationwide contiguous blocks of spectrum to the telephone companies,” said ATBA’s Libin.
“They [the FCC] are building the auction on our backs, and they’re not giving us anything,” added Mike Gravino, director of the LPTV Spectrum Rights Coalition, another group lobbying regulators and legislators for LPTV and translator relief.
At very least, LPTV and translator advocates are hoping that the GAO study will give them ammo to persuade the FCC or Congress to guarantee their rights to new channels to continue broadcasting in the auction’s wake — and to reimburse their costs for moving to the new channels. Sources said additional support for the industry is being rallied on Capitol Hill.
“What we really want them to do is add us into the mix of the stations to be repacked and protected,” said Libin. “I don’t expect them [the FCC] to put us in the auction, but I do expect them to protect our viewers,” he added.
But some LPTV proponents want more. Gravino said his group is also lobbying for LPTV “flexible use” rights that would allow low-power licensees to use their spectrum for whatever they would prefer — even to lease or sell the channels to the wireless companies.
“If I get flex use, Verizon will be knocking on my door tomorrow,” Gravino said. “I could lease it, sell it or use it to provide broadband.”
“We want fairness, and we want the option to be in the auction, too,” Gravino added.
LPTV and translator advocates say they aren’t counting on the FCC riding to their rescue.
“The way the FCC has interpreted the mandate from Congress there is no protection for LPTV and translators,” said Libin. “What can they do for us with no protection? It’s almost an oxymoron.”
Other TV industry lobbyists say that, when it comes to relief, the FCC’s hands are tied, because Congress failed to include low-power protections in the law authorizing the auction.
“LPTV lost their battle in Congress,” one TV lobbyist said.
Still, Libin said that he is encouraged by some of the language in the rulemaking the FCC adopted on Oct. 9 that addresses low-power issues.
The rulemaking seeks comment on whether to allow LPTV and translator stations to share channels and it suggests that the FCC may help stations find new channels if they are displaced during the repacking.
It doesn’t propose extending full-power protections to low-power stations, Libin said, but it at least acknowledges the problem.
Libin points to a section that invites comments on “additional measures we should consider in order to mitigate the impact of the incentive auction on LPTV and TV translator stations and to help preserve the important services they provide.”
“It’s not enough,” he said. “But the FCC is paying attention to LPTV and translators and that is a big deal.”
An FCC spokeswoman insisted that low-power interests are not being ignored. “The commission recognizes that LPTV and translator stations provide important programming to viewers and is therefore considering steps to ensure that this programming continues to reach viewers after the incentive auction.”
LPTV and TV translator advocates blame their own disorganization — and the fact that they got outgunned by the huge phone companies that were promoting the auction — for their failure to win the same sort of protections full-power stations got.
“They’ve just never been organized,” said Sinclair’s Aitken.
The Alliance and Coalition are both advocating that LPTV and translators receive new channels if needed and that both receive compensation for their costs, while the National Translator Association, one of the other major players on the scene, has focused its efforts primarily on promoting the prospects of translators, both those that carry commercial or noncommercial programming.
Meanwhile, public broadcasters, with nearly 600 translators of their own, are lobbying at the FCC to ensure that any of their translators forced to move during the repacking get priority for new channels over commercial translators and low-power TV stations, Lonna Thompson, Association of Public Television Stations EVP, COO and general counsel, told TVNewsCheck.
“We have a statutory mandate to serve unserved and underserved areas,” Thompson said.
Thompson also said the pubcasters are lobbying for federal reimbursement for the $50,000 on average that public television engineers have estimated moving each translator to a new channel assignment could cost.
“We’re going to keep pushing at the FCC for assurance that viewers getting public TV through our translators will continue to receive service, and we know we have a lot of support for this on the Hill,” Thompson said.
“We love Big Bird, but why should Big Bird have priority against a station with a local Hispanic news show?” said the Coalition’s Gravino. “That’s a First Amendment issue.”
Said Libin: “Our organizations are all coming together, and I think you will see much more unity in the future.”
The National Association of Broadcasters has focused on promoting protections for digital replacement translators — translators authorized to fill in coverage areas that broadcasters lost when they switched from analog to digital technologies, sources said.
“Our official position is that NAB believes LPTV stations are an indispensable service providing both network programming in some markets, along with foreign language and religious programming in many others,” said Dennis Wharton, an NAB spokesman. “We believe Congress intended for the FCC to do everything within its power to preserve as many LPTV stations as possible.”
With the call for the GAO study, the LPTV interest are feeling a bit more hopeful. Lawmakers are awakening to the fact that millions of their constituents could lose over-the-air TV service in the auction’s wake, Aitken said.
“LPTV is the poster child of diversity,” Aitken said. “If you were truly for diversity, the most truly diverse part of the industry would not be the most at risk.”