Every year, about this time, I dust off the crystal ball to offer a look at the year ahead to see what Washington has in store for broadcasters. This year, like many in the recent past, Washington will consider issues that could fundamentally affect the broadcast industry - for both radio and TV, and affecting the growing on-line presence of broadcasters. The FCC, Congress, and other government agencies are never afraid to provide their views on what the industry should be doing but, unlike other members of the audience, they can force broadcasters to pay attention to their views by way of new laws and regulations. And there is never a shortage of ideas from Washington as to how broadcasters should act. Some of the issues discussed below are perennials, coming back over and over again on my yearly list (often without resolution), while others are unique to this coming year. Issues unique to radio and TV, and those that could affect the broadcast industry generally, are addressed below.
Spectrum issues have been the dominant TV concerns in past years, first with the digital transition, and more recently with the "white spaces" rulemaking and the proposals advanced as part of the FCC's Broadband Plan to reclaim part of the TV spectrum for wireless broadband uses. These issues remain on the FCC's agenda, as do new issues dealing with the carriage of television stations by cable and satellite television providers. Specific issues for TV include:
Spectrum reclamation: The initial proposals for the reclamation of part of the TV spectrum for wireless broadband were laid by the FCC's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released in November, looking at how the TV spectrum could be used more efficiently, and how incentive auctions encouraging some TV stations to vacate their channels could be conducted. Congress still has to pass legislation to allow such auctions, and it will probably also mandate a spectrum inventory to determine if the reclamation of the TV spectrum is really necessary to provide for wireless broadband needs. At the same time, some TV operators have begun to talk about television stations themselves providing broadband service with their excess spectrum. While Congress will probably act on the auction bills this year, and there will be much debate about the details of the reallocation issue, so don't expect final resolution of this matter in 2011.
White Spaces: The FCC has authorized the operation of wireless devices in the television spectrum, resolving many of the concerns about interference to television operators by requiring all wireless users to protect operating TV channels in specific areas based on databases of existing users, not on spectrum sensing techniques. But implementation issues still need to be worked out - including finding parties to compile and administer the databases to make sure that all existing spectrum users who are to be protected are registered. Expect action on these matters this year, but no actual white spaces use until after these implementation efforts are completed.
LPTV Digital Transition: While many members of the general public may consider the digital television transition to be complete, many Low Power TV stations and TV translators are still operating in analog. The FCC has commenced a proceeding to require the transition of these stations to digital, suggesting that the transition be complete as early as the end of 2012. Expect controversy on this issue. Many LPTV stations feel that being forced incur the costs to covert to digital is premature and could imperil broadcast service, especially to rural areas and minority populations who rely on translators and LPTV stations, if spectrum repacking caused by any future repurposing of TV spectrum for broadband forces further technical changes. These issues will be considered by the Commission this year.
Retransmission Consent Reform: At the end of 2010, there was much controversy over retransmission consent issues, as there were instances where broadcasters and cable operators and other multichannel video programming distributors had difficult negotiations over the carriage fees to be paid to the TV stations. FCC sources stated at the end of the year that a proceeding will be initiated to determine if the rules governing the negotiation process should be changed. The multichannel video programming distributors and some public interest groups argue that the FCC should protect viewers who may have their TV service disappear if a TV station does not reach a deal with a MVPD, while the broadcasters argue that the ability to remove the station is the heart of the negotiation, and removing the risk of the MVPD losing the right to carry the station would negate the negotiation. Look for this proceeding to commence early in the year but, as it will no doubt be very controversial, it may take some time to resolve.
DMA Boundary Issues: The FCC has also begun a proceeding to look at DMA boundaries that cross state lines to see if every television viewer should be guaranteed to receive service from cable or satellite providers of a station in his or her state. Television stations fear that this guarantee could upset traditional television markets, and could have an impact on retransmission consent negotiations in border counties. Comments in this proceeding are due on January 24th, 2011.