On Wednesday, Congress passed the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act of 2010 (STELA), which extends the blanket copyright license allowing satellite television providers to deliver distant signals to "unserved" viewers who are unable to receive a signal from their local network affiliate.  The Act extends that blanket license for five more years until December 31, 2014.  Enactment of this bill (assuming President Obama signs it into law) will essentially extend the current blanket license scheme — which previously expired on December 31, 2009, and which had been hastily extended temporarily a couple of times this year — that governs the importation of distant signals.  Although the Act did not tackle many of the issues that had been raised and debated regarding satellite television and the rebroadcast of local station over the past six months, the final bill does allow Dish Network to get back into the business of rebroadcasting distant signals directly, instead of through a third party.  In exchange for this change in the law, Dish Network has committed to delivering local television signals into the remaining dozen or so markets in which it doesn’t provide local-into-local service presently.  By virtue of this trade, Dish will likely become the first satellite television provider to offer local TV stations via satellite in all 210 markets in the country.

One subtle, but potentially very significant change for broadcast stations is the fact that the rule changes the definition of what constitutes an "unserved household".  Today, the law defines an unserved household (i.e., one that would be entitled to the importation of a distant signal) as:  "…a household that cannot receive, through the use of a conventional, stationary, outdoor rooftop receiving antenna, an over-the-air signal of a primary network station affiliated with that network…"  47 USC 119(d)(10)(A).  Now, however, the STELA Act changes that definition to simply state that an unserved household is one that:  "…cannot receive, through the use of an antenna, an over-the-air signal…"  Changing the definition to reception simply by "an antenna" instead of a "conventional, station, outdoor rooftop receiving antenna" would appear to mean that Congress has just extended the definition of unserved households to include those that cannot receive an adequate signal using rabbit ear antennas, not one that can’t receive a signal using a 30-foot, fixed, outdoor antenna.  This could lead to a significant change in the provision of distant signals and potentially eat away at a station’s protected service area.  How exactly this plays out and whether or not it allows the satellite providers to bring distant signals to households previously considered "served" remains to be seen. 


Continue Reading Congress Passes STELA Act Extending Satellite Television Provisions and Changing the Definition of Unserved Household

I just finished speaking on a panel at the Radio Ink Convergence ’09 conference in San Jose.  My panel was called "The Distribution Dilemma: Opportunities, Partnership and Landmines."  As the legal representative, my role was, of course, to talk about the landmines.  And one occurred to me in the middle of the panel when a representative of Ibiquity, the HD Radio people, about one of the opportunities available for the multicast channels available in that system, where an FM radio operator can, on one FM station, send out two or three different digital signals.  The particular opportunity that was discussed was the ability to bring in outside programmers to program the digital channels, specifically talking about a recent deal where a broadcaster had entered into a deal with a company that would be brokering a digital channel in major markets, and programming that station with a format directed to the Asian communities.  Broadcasters are generally familiar with the fact that, when they broker their traditional analog broadcast station to a third party, the licensee remains responsible for the content that is delivered in that brokered programming – e.g. making sure that there are no payola, indecency, lottery or other legal issues that pop up in that brokered programming.  Broadcasters need to remember that that same responsibility applies to multicast streams, whether they are on HD radio or on a multicast stream broadcast by a digital television station.  These stream are over-the-air broadcast channels subject to all FCC programming rules.

Foreign language programming has traditionally presented programming issues for broadcasters.  In the 1970s and 1980s, there were multiple cases where broadcasters actually lost licenses because there was illegal activity taking place in brokered programming.  In these cases, the programming contained illegal content and the licensee had no way to monitor the content of the programs as the licensee had no one on staff who spoke the language in which the programming was produced.  The FCC basically said that the licensee had the responsibility to be able to monitor all programming broadcast on its station – so they had abdicated their responsibility to keep the station in compliance with FCC rules by not knowing what was being said in the brokered programming.


Continue Reading Caution on Multicast Streams – Remember It’s Still Over-the-Air Broadcasting

The FCC’s has published in the Federal Register certain aspects of its November decision on closed captioning – most notably the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking asking if a broadcaster’s multicast streams should each count as a separate "channel" potentially exempt from closed captioning requirements if that channel doesn’t bring in more than $3 million

This week, an interesting concept has been advanced in a series of applications filed with the FCC.  Ion Media Networks, the successor to Paxson Television, has proposed to transfer some of its broadcast stations to a new company, Urban Television LLP, to be owned 51% by Robert Johnson, the former owner of BET, and 49% by Ion itself.  But, when we say that they are transferring "some" of its stations, we don’t mean that any of its stations are being transferred, but instead only that a piece of its stations are proposed to be transferred.  Ion proposes to continue to own and operate stations in every market where it currently operates, but proposes to sell digital multicast channels to Johnson. Unlike any LMA or other programming agreement, the proposal is to actually take one 6 MHz television channel and break it up so that Ion continues to program one channel with its programming and the Urban Television will program the other channel with its programming, and become the actual license of that portion of the spectrum.  The FCC has accepted the applications and issued a Public Notice, giving parties 30 days to file comments on the proposal. 

It is not unheard of for two licensees to share the same channel – though where it is currently occurs most frequently is in connection with noncommercial broadcasters who share a single radio or TV channel, they divide it by time, so that one licensee operates, say midnight to noon and the other operates from noon to midnight.  Obviously, in these shared-time arrangements, both broadcasters are not operating on the same channel at the same time.  This new proposal, though, does not come out of the blue.  The idea of allowing a broadcaster to sell a digital channel to a different company, has been proposed before, for both Digital Television and Digital HD Radio channels when the original station is multicasting, as a way to increase diversity of ownership.


Continue Reading Splitting a Television Station License – Ion and Robert Johnson Propose a Unique Concept for Increaing Media Ownership

The FCC has adopted new procedures for the submission of complaints about the failure to adequately provide closed captioning of video programming carried on television stations and cable systems.  In the same order, the Commission issued clarifications about the impact of the digital transition on the obligations of stations and networks to caption programming

The FCC today issued an order extending the comment deadline in its Broadcast Diversity proceeding, extending the comment date a full month until July 30, with Reply Comments now due on August 29.  This important proceeding, about which we wrote here, will address many issues, including proposals to, among other things, repurpose television

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