At its meeting yesterday, the FCC adopted new rules for post-auction channel sharing by broadcast television stations (see the public notice here, full-text is now available here). Channel sharing was a concept adopted by the FCC in connection with the broadcast incentive auction, to allow two or more stations to share a single 6 MHz TV channel, while retaining separate licenses. To help convince stations to give up their channels in the incentive auction, the FCC allowed licensees to give up their channel in the incentive auction, while retaining their licenses and all the rights that go with these licenses (e.g. the right to sell the license, must-carry/retransmission consent rights, etc.) by sharing a 6 MHz channel with another licensee. The FCC adopted rules for channel sharing in the auction itself (see our summary here). Yesterday’s decision looked at post-auction channel sharing.
The new decision has importance in two principal areas. The first is for stations that entered into channel sharing agreements in connection with the auction that are time-limited rather than of unlimited duration. The second, with perhaps wider impact, is for secondary stations (e.g. LPTV and TV Translator stations). For these secondary stations, real benefits are offered in the potential for increased coverage through sharing with full-power stations.
For full-power and Class A TV stations that entered into time-limited sharing agreements, these stations can enter into what the FCC calls “second-generation channel sharing agreements” when their initial agreements expire. By entering into these agreements with their initial host, or with some other local station, the “sharee” station will continue to have all the same rights that it has under its initial auction related channel sharing agreement – including all must-carry/retransmission consent rights. This clarification will probably apply to a limited universe of companies that entered into time-limited sharing agreements.
The bigger opportunity presented by this order expands sharing opportunities for LPTV and TV translator stations (i.e., secondary stations). All secondary stations will be permitted to share a channel with either another secondary station, or with a primary full power or Class A TV station. This ruling gives these stations more options should they be bumped in the repacking, either because their current channel will no longer be part of the TV band or because a full-power or Class A station has been repacked onto a channel that interferes with their current operation.
Sharing with a full-power station offers the benefit of allowing LPTV and TV translator stations to get the increased coverage that the full-power station offers. They are sharing the same 6 MHz channel as the full-power, so their programming gets the same coverage as that of the full-power stations. These secondary stations don’t pick up any new must-carry rights from such sharing arrangements, but they do have the potential opportunity to vastly increase their service area.
In addition, by sharing with a full-power station or a Class A TV station, they effectively protect their stations from future changes in full-power TV stations. As secondary stations, these stations are subject to being bumped off the air by the change in facilities of a full-power station, or by the allocation of a new channel for a new full-power station. By using the same 6 MHz as a full-power station, that risk of being bumped goes away.
Of course, deals must be cut with host stations to get the rights to share the spectrum of any TV station. For some LPTV or TV translators, that may not be possible for economic reasons or because there are no potential host stations in the areas where they operate. But, depending on how much of the digital bit-stream they are allocated, and what the other full-power stations in their market are doing, opportunities may be presented for some secondary TV stations to increase their coverage and protect their operations into the future.
Edited 3:30 PM EDT, 3/24/2017 to add link to full text of the decision.