On the Schedule for the April 27 FCC Meeting: Television Public Interest Obligations, TV Channel Sharing and Third-Party Fundraising by Noncommercial Broadcasters
Three broadcast items are tentatively scheduled for the next FCC meeting, to be held on April 27, according to the tentative agenda released today. In one expected action, though perhaps moving more quickly than many thought possible, the FCC has indicated that it will adopt an Order in its proceeding requiring TV broadcasters to place and maintain their public files on the Internet. A second broadcast item will adopt rules for channel sharing by TV broadcasters as part of the plan for incentive auctions to entice TV broadcasters to give up some of their spectrum for wireless broadband use. Finally, the FCC proposes to adopt a NPRM on whether to amend current policies so as to permit noncommercial broadcasters from interrupting their regular programming to raise funds for organizations other than the station itself.
The first item is to determine whether to require that the broadcasters maintain an Online Public Inspection File, is a controversial issue about which we wrote last week. The proposal for the online file grew out of the FCC's Future of Media Report (renamed the Report on the Information Needs of Communities when it was released last year, see our summary here). In that same report, it was suggested that the FCC relax rules applicable to noncommercial broadcasters that limit their on-air fundraising for third-parties, if that fundraising interrupts the normal course of programming. The Future of Media Report suggests that this restriction be relaxed so that noncommercial broadcasters be able to do block programming from time to time to raise funds for other noncommercial entities
In recent years, the FCC has issued blanket waivers to allow noncommercial stations to raise funds for relief groups bringing aid to areas where mass disasters have hit (see our articles on waivers granted for for Haitian earthquake relief, here, and for Japan earthquake and tsunami relief, here). It may be that the NPRM will address these types of situations. But, as controversies have arisen in other situations where noncommercial broadcasters enter into business relationships to preserve and expand their service (see our articlehere on some of the issues raised by the FCC in a case involving the sale of a noncommercial licensee and the objections to a pre-sale operating agreement or LMA), this proceeding may well address these more extensive issues.
The TV channel sharing item grow out of the FCC's proposals that hope to recapture some more of the television spectrum to repurpose it for wireless broadband. Congress recently passed legislation (which we summarized here) to allow incentive auctions to try to entice certain TV broadcasters to give back their spectrum for re-auction by the FCC. Given that digital television technology allows for one television channel to now transmit several programming streams, the FCC had suggested that one option for broadcasters was for two TV stations to get together, agree to turn one channel back in to the FCC for wireless use while putting both of their programming onto different streams on the second station, splitting auction proceeds,and perhaps even retaining must-carry rights for both streams. See our summary of the FCC's proposals for channel sharing, issued just over a year ago.
Such a channel-sharing program will be but a first step in the long process of clearing some spectrum for wireless broadband. Even if the FCC adopts rules for channel sharing, it must still adopt rules for the spectrum auctions (both the incentive auctions by which TV stations offer to give up their spectrum in exchange for payment) and for the actual bidding on the cleared spectrum by wireless users. In addition, the FCC will likely want to repack the TV band, moving stations that don't elect to give up their channels to a smaller part of the TV band, to clear the same TV channels so as to provide a consistent spectrum band across the country for wireless use. That plan, akin to the channel changes that took place when DTV was implemented, is no doubt a much longer, more complex process. So this is but the first small step toward the FCC trying to implement their plans for wireless broadband operations on what are now TV channels.
In any event, this may be a very important meeting for broadcasters. This NPRM on the new public file requirements is also connected to the FCC's proposal to create a disclosure form for public interest programming, which may be addressed next. Together, these issues may make April a very busy and important month for broadcasters.
[Corrected 4/9/12, 4 PM to reflect that the FCC meeting will discuss the online public file, not the form for reporting on the public service of broadcasters, as originally indicated]