Come the New Year, we all engage in speculation about what’s ahead in our chosen fields, so it’s time for us to look into our crystal ball to try to discern what Washington may have in store for broadcasters in 2009. With each new year, a new set of regulatory issues face the broadcaster from the powers-that-be in Washington. But this year, with a new Presidential administration, new chairs of the Congressional committees that regulate broadcasters, and with a new FCC on the way, the potential regulatory challenges may cause the broadcaster to look at the new year with more trepidation than usual. In a year when the digital television transition finally becomes a reality, and with a troubled economy and no election or Olympic dollars to ease the downturn, who wants to deal with new regulatory obstacles? Yet, there are potential changes that could affect virtually all phases of the broadcast operations for both radio and television stations – technical, programming, sales, and even the use of music – all of which may have a direct impact on a station’s bottom line that can’t be ignored. 

With the digital conversion, one would think that television broadcasters have all the technical issues that they need for 2009. But the FCC’s recent adoption of its “White Spaces” order, authorizing the operation of unlicensed wireless devices on the TV channels, insures that there will be other issues to watch. The White Spaces decision will likely be appealed. While the appeal is going on, the FCC will have to work on the details of the order’s implementation, including approving operators of the database that is supposed to list all the stations that the new wireless devices will have to protect, as well as “type accepting” the devices themselves, essentially certifying that the devices can do what their backers claim – knowing where they are through the use of geolocation technology, “sniffing” out signals to protect, and communicating with the database to avoid interference with local television, land mobile radio, and wireless microphone signals.


Continue Reading Gazing Into the Crystal Ball – The Outlook for Broadcast Regulation in 2009

A recent proposal to increase the power levels at which HD Radio stations operate – to improve coverage and, perhaps more importantly, building penetration so that people can receive digital channels inside buildings – has been the subject of a cautionary study released by National Public Radio.  That study was summarized in a story in the NPR magazine Current (an executive summary can be found here, and the entire 280 page study is here).  The study agrees that an increase in power suggested by the recent proposal would increase HD Radio coverage and significantly increase building penetration, but it would do so only at the cost of causing interference to existing analog stations – in some cases significant interference.  Such interference would be especially troublesome in receivers in cars, where radio broadcasters have long concentrated some of their most important programming to capture people in the place where competing entertainment options are most limited.   

The NPR study does suggest that there could be ways to limit the interference using directional antennas or lessening power but using digital boosters that could be tuned slightly off-center on their frequencies to protect adjacent channel stations.  HD radio operates on the sides of a station’s analog channel (thus its original name – "IBOC" for In-Band On-Channel), thus potentially causing interference to adjacent channel stations.  By suppressing the signal on the side of the signal nearest to the adjacent channel station and sending the digital bits out of the other side of the channel, some of this interference could be minimized.  Yet systems capable of such protections have not yet been fully developed.


Continue Reading NPR Study Suggests Concerns With Increase in HD Radio Power

The FCC recently issued a Notice of Inquiry, asking if it should consider mandating that XM Sirius receivers also be able to receive HD Radio or to play material from other audio sources.  This proceeding was promised as part of the FCC’s approval of the XM-Sirius merger, as a potential way of ensuring that competition in the audio entertainment marketplace remained robust after the merger.  While the Commission required that XM Sirius allow manufacturers to build receivers that could incorporate HD Radio or other audio entertainment technologies (e.g. MP3 player, Internet connectivity, etc), it did not require that any receiver contain such technology.  This proceeding asks if any sort of requirement along these lines should be adopted.  It also seeks information generally about the audio entertainment marketplace.

Specific questions posed by the FCC in this proceeding include:

  • Would a mandate promote lower prices and more choices for consumers of audio entertainment?
  • Should it be expected that audio devices with multiple audio entertainment capabilities will be developed without an FCC mandate?
  • Would an XM Sirius radio with HD Radio capability promote dissemination of state-level EAS messages?
  • How well has HD Radio been developing on its own?
  • Would multi-function devices facilitate the development of HD Radio?
  • Are such devices necessary for the development of HD Radio?
  • What other public interest benefits, if any, would result from such a combinations?
  • What technological issues would there be in multifunction devices (e.g. manufacturing cost, battery life, size and weight, interference, etc.)?
  • If a requirement was adopted, how long would any required phase-in period need to be?
  • Should any requirement cover all radios, or just certain types (e.g. in-car, portables, home receivers, etc)?
  • Does the FCC have the authority to adopt any such mandate?

That last issue, the FCC statutory authority to adopt rules in this area, is a general question considered in several other recent FCC proceedings (for instance, see out post here).  Just because the FCC might think that something is a good idea does not mean that it can adopt rules in an area.  Rules requiring that equipment manufacturers take certain actions have run into problems in the Court of Appeals in the recent past as the FCC has only limited jurisdiction over such manufacturers, so any mandate here will need careful justification or perhaps even a specific statutory mandate.


Continue Reading FCC Begins Inquiry on Mandate for HD Radio on XM Sirius Receivers

The Digital Television conversion has allowed the FCC to reclaim significant portions of the TV spectrum for wireless and public safety uses – television channels above 51 will no longer be used for broadcast TV at the end of the analog to digital transition.  But, as part of the FCC’s Diversity proceeding (see our post here), a proposal dealing with the other end of the TV spectrum is being considered – whether to remove Channels 5 and 6 from the television band and instead use these channels for FM radio.  These channels are adjacent to the lower end of the FM band.  Because of this adjacency, the existence of TV Channel 6 in a market can limit the use of the lowest end of the FM band (used for Noncommercial Educational stations) to avoid interference to the TV station.  Similarly, Channel 6’s audio can be heard on many FM radio receivers, a fact that has recently been used by some LPTV operators to use their stations to deliver an audio service that can be received by FM radios (see our post on this subject).  In comments filed in the Diversity proceeding, parties have taken positions all across the spectrum – from television operators who have opposed using the channel for anything but television, to those suggesting that the channels be entirely cleared of television users and turned into a digital radio service.  Proposals also suggest using the band for LPFM operations, and even for clearing the AM band by assigning AM operators to this band to commence new digital operations.

In comments that our firm submitted on behalf of a group of noncommercial FM radio licensees who also rebroadcast their signals on a number of FM translator stations, we suggested that Channel 6 could provide a home for LPFM operations, instead of trying to squeeze those stations into the existing FM band.  There are currently proposals to squeeze more LPFM stations into the FM band by supplanting some FM translators (see our summary of some of those proposals here).  In these comments in the Diversity proceeding, we pointed out that, as there are currently radios on the market that receive 87.9, 87.7 and even 87.5, using these three channels for LPFM service would provide an immediate home to these stations, and far more opportunity for than LPFM would have in the already congested FM band.  These opportunities would exist even in most of the largest radio markets in the country, except in the handful of markets where a Channel 6 television station will continue to operate after the digital transition.  By adopting this proposal, the service that would be provided by FM translators would not be threatened. 


Continue Reading What to Do With TV Channels 5 and 6 – Proposals to Turn Them Over to Radio Services

The FCC has released a Public Notice announcing its approval of the XM and Sirius satellite radio merger.  The public notice is only two pages long, with a four page appendix providing very brief summaries of the conditions imposed on the two companies which a majority of the Commissioners found sufficient to protect consumers from harm from the merged entity.  The full text of the decision, providing the full reasoning of the Commission on its approval, has not yet been released.  Until it is, the impact for broadcast ownership and the treatment of broadcast consolidation set by the precedent of this decision remains unclear.

The conditions placed on the merger and outlined by the decision include some surprising ones beneficial to broadcasters, including that the merged company not use its terrestrial repeaters to originate local broadcasts and that the company not enter into exclusive agreements precluding the broadcast of local sporting events by over-the-air broadcast stations.  The decision also imposed price caps on the service for three years, and set out conditions to open the manufacturing of satellite radio receivers to more companies and prohibiting any restriction on combining the radio receiver with other audio devices including digital radio receivers.  No condition requiring that satellite radio receivers be capable of picking up over-the-air digital radio ("HD Radio") was imposed, though the FCC promised to issue a Notice of Inquiry to review that issue.  Specific programming channels will be made available for noncommercial educational use and for leased access.  The FCC also made clear that satellite radio will be subject to the FCC’s EEO rules.


Continue Reading FCC Releases Public Notice of Decision Approving XM-Sirius Merger – Precedent for Broadcast Ownership Not Yet Clear

According to an article yesterday in Broadcasting and Cable Online, and another article in the New York Times today, Chairman Martin of the FCC is looking to complete the multiple ownership proceeding (which we summarized here) by the middle of December.  According to the Times article, the Chairman is looking for relaxation of the current newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rules – the prohibition on the ownership of a broadcast station and a daily newspaper in the same market.  What the Chairman has in mind for the rules regarding local radio and television ownership is less clear.  But, no matter what is planned, forces are already mustering to attempt to delay the Commission action.

Contemplating a December action is certainly aggressive.  The Commission had promised to complete the two sets of public hearings – one on the ownership rules and a second on the localism provided by broadcasters – before reaching conclusions in this case.  Each set of hearings still has a final hearing to be held.  The Commission has yet to officially announce the date and location of either of these final hearings – though press reports have indicated that the Commission may look to hold one at the end of the month on the West Coast, and the final hearing in Washington, DC in early November.  In addition, the Commission has just received the final set of comments on the proposals to foster minority ownership, which the Third Circuit had indicated was to be part of the analysis in this proceeding when it stayed the effect of most of the Commission’s 2003 multiple ownership decision and remanded that decision to the FCC for further consideration.  With the comments on minority ownership just having been filed, and comments on the Commission’s own studies on the effect of consolidation not not due until next week (see details), and replies due early next month, does the Commission really have time to consider the issues raised in these comments in this proceeding and reach a December decision, or will some issues need to be delayed for independent consideration?  Seldom has the FCC finished any proceeding within a month and a half of the end of the public comment period – much less an important and controversial one like multiple ownership.


Continue Reading Push to Complete Multiple Ownership Overhaul By the End of the Year

Last Friday, the rules on over-the-air digital radio for AM and FM stations – the IBOC system or, as it is commonly known, HD Radio – became effective.  The most immediate effect of the new rules, which we summarized here, is the ability of AM stations to operate using the IBOC system at night.  The Commission determined that such operation offered more benefits than any interference it might create.  The final rules also allowed stations to begin digital operations – and multicast operations – on a permanent basis without prior FCC approval.  As these rules take effect, some stations are beginning to look to the multicast channels to provide new programming opportunities.

NPR has, in many ways, led the efforts to utilize digital radio for multicast operations.  In today’s Washington Post, there is an article about the city’s NPR affiliate, WAMU, which has recently announced plans to take its multicast operations to a new level.  WAMU had in the past programmed a substantial amount of bluegrass music, a local DC favorite.  Over time, that programming had been reduced as the station broadcast more and more talk programming.  The station had moved bluegrass to a full time Internet radio stream, and has now announced plans to move all of the remaining bluegrass and roots music programming (which had been limited to Sundays) to one of its IBOC digital multicast streams – and to include live announcers during at least some of this digital programming.  The Post article quotes the station manager as saying that the local Best Buy now knows that HD Radio is different from the service that XM or Sirius provide.


Continue Reading IBOC Digital Radio Rules Become Effective – Some Stations Lead the Way on Multicasting