News

LPTV Bailout

2/15/2008 7:00 PM Eastern

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin is pressuring the cable industry to bail out thousands of low-power TV stations that could become casualties of digital-TV transition policies enforced by the FCC and the Bush administration.

In a letter last Tuesday (Feb. 12), Martin wrote National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow to “ask and strongly encourage” cable operators to carry low-power TV stations “on a voluntary basis where they have the capacity.” Cable’s consent, he added, “could prove immensely valuable” in helping LPTV stations survive.

STATIONS COMPLAINED

Martin is scrambling after low-power station owners — which don’t have cable carriage rights — complained that FCC and Bush administration policies would put them out of business following the Feb. 17, 2009 conversion to all-digital TV.

Here’s the problem: low-power TV stations are not required to make the switch to digital next year. Meanwhile, the Bush administration, in shaping a $1.5 billion digital-to-analog converter-box subsidy program, refused to require box makers to include analog tuners. And the FCC has not acted on a low-power station petition asking that converter boxes without analog tuners be deemed in violation of the All-Channel Receiver Act of 1962.

Low-power stations say they will face financial ruin because they will lose millions of viewers who have connected government-funded converter boxes to their analog TV sets. Just four models — out of more than 30 approved by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration — include analog tuners voluntarily.

“Every time one of these boxes [is] plugged in, we lose a viewer. We are out of business over this program. We need help,” Community Broadcasters Association president Ron Bruno told the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet last Wednesday.

McSlarrow, testifying before the same panel, was indignant because Martin’s letter failed to mention that he wants the FCC to award full-power status to more than 500 Class A stations, giving them instant cable carriage rights for the first time.

Evidently, Martin’s request that cable carry low-power stations voluntarily would be in addition to carriage of hundreds of Class A station with newly minted must-carry rights.

“What is a little dismaying was that in both chairman Martin’s testimony [before the subcommittee] and in this letter there was no mention of an item that had been reported and circulating at the FCC which would go farther and actually inject must carry for low power stations into this process,” McSlarrow said.

McSlarrow complained that Martin — not for the first time — was relying on hide-the-ball tactics.

“Once again here’s an item that no has ever seen and so far as I can tell, no one actually asked for it,” McSlarrow said.

McSlarrow sought help from subcommittee chairman Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) in stopping Martin from barraging cable with regulations and damage the public-private partnership built to make the DTV transition a success.

“We are now a year out and I would suggest, chairman [Markey], and urge you to use your good offices to send a message to the FCC that this is the time for all of us to be working together to solve real problems and not raise red herrings that are probably going to just engender more confusion and greater possibility of litigation,” McSlarrow said.

Martin’s letter called on DirecTV and Dish Network to help out, too, by carrying LPTV signals. He also asked full-power TV stations to carry LPTV signals on available digital capacity.

Martin also asked of consumer electronics manufacturers to build more boxes with analog tuners.

QUESTIONS REMAIN

But Martin’s letter didn’t explore a fundamental point: Namely, how does cable or satellite carriage help broadcast-only homes view low-power TV signals?

And his letter failed to note any steps that low-power stations might take to help themselves, such as airing public-service announcements that urge viewers to pick a converter with an analog tuner or advising viewers to keep an old analog TV around the house just to watch LPTV programming.

Martin wants LPTV stations to transition to digital broadcasting no later than 2012.

March