Despite the telework restrictions in place at the FCC, regulatory life goes on, with the Commission continuing to process applications and deliver decisions every day.  One of those decisions released yesterday clarified the FCC’s rural radio policy, and its application to noncommercial FM stations.  The rural radio policy was adopted a decade ago to preserve program diversity in rural areas by restricting the move of radio stations into more urbanized areas through city of license changes.  The policy restricts rural stations from changing their city of license to a location from which the station could place a principal city contour over 50% of any urbanized area (see our articles here and here for more details on this policy).  The decision yesterday upheld prior decisions in the same proceeding which concluded that, for noncommercial reserved-band stations, the appropriate contour to analyze is the 60 dBu contour.  If that contour would cover more than 50% of an urbanized area after a city of license change, the change will generally be prohibited for any station not now providing such coverage over an urbanized area.

The licensee in this case had argued that this decision was illogical, as the rural radio prohibition for commercial stations is only triggered when the 70 dBu contour covers more than 50% of the urbanized area – not the 60 dBu contour.  The FCC rejected that argument, saying that the policy being advocated was more appropriately raised in a rulemaking, not in an application case like this.  The FCC’s finding in this case would mean that two broadcasters, one commercial and one noncommercial, could propose moves from rural locations to the same new city of license and propose to operate from the exact same antenna with the exact same power levels and height above average terrain, and the noncommercial application would be denied as it would be deemed an application for the urbanized area because its 60 dBu contour covered more than 50% of that area, while the commercial station would be granted as its 70 dBu did not reach 50% of the urbanized area.  Two stations providing exactly the same service to the same urbanized area would be treated differently – one as if it serves the urbanized area, the other as if it would not.
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Moving a station from a rural area into a more urban one was a fairly common occurrence until the recent recession – when the value of new "move-in" stations in many larger markets essentially collapsed. Soon after the collapse, the FCC stepped in to stop what the marketplace had already severely slowed, by effectively prohibiting the practice of moving stations into urbanized areas.  In its Rural Radio Order (which we summarized here), the Commission adopted “presumptions” that eliminated preferences that applicants had received for proposing a new service to large suburban communities, and preferences based solely on the number of people that a modified station would serve. A number of parties (including ones that I represented), sought reconsideration of the FCC’s order, challenging both the theory of the FCC order and some of the details. On Friday, the FCC issued its order on reconsideration, denying any fundamental changes in the policy, but clarifying some of the details of the showings to be made in evaluating city of license changes for broadcast stations, and also grandfathering under the old rules more of the applications that were pending when the new rules were adopted.

Before discussing the changes, it is worth reviewing the Commission’s processes for deciding which of competing proposals for new FM channels in different communities should be granted, and whether the change in the city of license of an existing station is in the public interest. These choices are governed by Section 307(b) of the Communications Act and the substantial case law that has built up at the FCC around that section. Section 307(b) requires that the Commission make a “fair, efficient and equitable” distribution of radio service among the states and communities. Over the years, the FCC has adopted standards for determining how to make this distribution – favoring applications that propose a “first local reception service” (or service to “white areas” – those that currently receive no predicted service from other stations), net favoring a second reception service, next giving a preference to those providing a “first transmission service” (i.e. a first station licensed to a community). Finally, if none of the preceding preferences come into play, the Commission looks at “other public interest factors” – usually the total population served by a proposal, including an evaluation of the other services from other stations available in both the gain and loss area of a proposed facility move (or in the proposed coverage areas of the new allotments that the Commission is evaluating). 


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Changing the city of license of an AM or FM station is getting more difficult, based on recent FCC decisions.  As we have written before, the FCC’s Rural Radio order changed the manner in which the FCC reviews city of license changes.  In connection with any proposed city of license change, the FCC reviews the proposal to make sure that the change will result in a favorable arrangement of allotments, making sure that the distribution of radio channels is in the public interest.  In making that decision, the FCC has relied on a series of priorities – first insuring that all areas of the country get at least two radio reception services (Priority 1 was to provide service to "white areas" that currently receive no radio service at all, Priority 2 was to provide a second reception service to all areas).  The next priority was to provide as many communities as possible with their first "transmission service", i.e. a station licensed to that community that would have a primary responsibility to address its needs and interests.  Finally, if there was no proposal to provide a first or second reception service or a first local transmission service, the FCC  looked at Priority 4 factors, i.e. other public interest matters.  In the past, service to a greater number of people itself was a Priority 4 consideration.  Based on a case released last week, service to a greater population apparently is no longer be viewed as justification for the change in the city of license of a radio station – even if the proposed move is from a rural community that already has a significant amount of service to a similarly well served urbanized area and results in a significant increase in the population served by the station.

The Rural Radio order changed the Priority 3 preference for a first transmission service by determining that any proposal for a city of license within an urbanized area would be viewed as being a proposal for service to the entire urbanized area (meaning that, instead of being a first local service to a named community, all the stations in the urbanized area would be considered as serving the same city). Thus, a proposal to take a station from a rural area (e.g. proposing to take the third radio station from some smaller rural town) to a city without a service in a urbanized area would no longer be viewed as providing the first local transmission service to the suburban community (but would instead be viewed as being a proposal to provide just another service to a metro area that probably already has many stations that are licensed to the various communities in the urbanized area).  Some had thought that, while Priority 3 would no longer justify such a move, a Priority 4 preference would be available if the move would allow the station to serve a much larger population, and if any loss area was already well served.  In the proposed move discussed last week, the Commission relied on language in the Rural Radio Order that stated that population increases alone would not be enough to justify a city of license change when a station proposed to move into an urbanized area.  In this case, the Commission’s staff found wanting a proposal to move from the well-served community of Boone, Iowa to a community in the Des Moines urbanized area – even though the proposed change would result in service to over 300,000 more people than are currently served by the station – increasing the number of people served by the station from less than 100,000 to over 400,000. The request was not denied outright, but instead the applicant was given another opportunity to supply additional information to demonstrate the public interest benefits that would result from the move. 


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In addition to the normal FCC deadlines for routine filings, January brings the deadline for comments in a number of FCC proceedings, and a filing window for new FM applications.  For TV stations, the Commission recently extended to January 17 the Reply Comment deadline on its proposals (summarized here) for an online public inspection file

Changing the city of license of a broadcast station was made more difficult by the FCC’s rural radio order.  That order, about which we wrote here, imposed substantial obstacles on broadcasters attempting to move their stations from rural areas into urbanized areas – making such moves difficult if not impossible in many cases. 

The FCC’s decision in its rural radio proceeding addresses numerous radio issues – some of which seem to provide a solution in search of a problem.  In an era where the President has called for agencies to review their decisions to access how they will affect businesses and job creation, some aspects of this rural radio decision appear to be moving in the opposite direction – imposing new hurdles on broadcasters trying to improve their operational facilities. While the FCC in this decision adopted largely uncontested rules that would promote the development of new radio stations on Tribal lands, the Commission also adopted rules making it harder for radio stations to move from more rural areas into more urban ones – rule that were almost universally condemned by broadcasters. The decision also restricted the ability of FM translators to “hop” from the commercial to the noncommercial band and vice versa, and adopted rules that codified the determination of how AM applications are determined to be “mutually exclusive” when filed in the same window for new or major change applications.  The changes to the procedures for consideration of AM and FM station allotment and movement are summarized below.  The other changes made in this proceeding will be discussed in a subsequent post on this blog.

Easily the most controversial of the decisions made by the Commission in this proceeding was the conclusions reached as to the movement of AM and FM radio stations from more rural areas into more urbanized ones.  We wrote about some of the concerns raised by broadcasters last week.  Many of the new rules and policies adopted by the Commission were ones feared by broadcasters – though many of the policies are still undefined, and how they are enforced may well determine their ultimate impact.  That impact may well take years to sort out.  Regardless of the ultimate impact on the actual movement of stations, there is no question that these rules will require far more paperwork from broadcasters seeking to allot new channels and from those seeking to change the cities of license of existing stations, and open more moves to challenge, making the process slower and more expensive.


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At the FCC meeting next week, the Commission will be considering an item dealing with radio stations that serve rural areas, and the ability of licensees to make technical modifications to those stations that would change the communities which they serve.  While, as we wrote last week, most of the attention of broadcasters has centered on the television issues to be considered at the meeting as the Commission is to begin an inquiry on the retransmission consent process.  The rural radio issue poses real concerns for radio operators – especially those contemplating a move of a radio station from a community outside of a metropolitan area to one in a metro.  In the name of protecting service to rural areas, the Commission may well restrict minority groups, specialty programmers, and other new entrants from bringing new services to metropolitan areas – permanently entrenching those companies who currently have major market stations as the only competition in those markets.  A proposal to protect service to rural areas may well have the impact of decreasing diversity in large markets.

In virtually every large market, there is little or no potential to add new channels for FM service both because of interference protections that need to be accorded to stations in the market and because of protections to stations outside of the market but close enough to be short-spaced to any potential station in the metro area.  In some cases, creative engineering has found ways for some of these non-metro stations to be moved into the metropolitan area, or at least close enough to provide some service to those markets.  "Move-in stations" have allowed new entrants, some with specialized programming, to provide service to large cities – when such entrants could never afford the price of an existing in-market station, even if one was for sale.  Even "rim shots", those move-ins that don’t provide full coverage of a metro area, may be very worthwhile for groups with unique formats (religion, Spanish language, and other targeted programming) trying to reach a small audience that is not otherwise going to get service in such markets.   


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After a series of FCC meetings where the only mention of broadcasters was in connection with taking TV spectrum for wireless broadband, the tentative agenda for the next FCC meeting, to be held on March 3, 2011, is full of broadcast issues – issues that could have broadcasters wishing that they were ignored once more.  The biggest issue is the initiation of a proceeding to re-examine the retransmission consent process by which television broadcasters negotiate with cable and satellite companies for payment for the carriage of their signals.  But also on the agenda are proceedings to look at rural radio services and whether the Commission should limit the ability of broadcasters to move stations from rural to urban areas, and the initiation of a proceeding to require that television programmers provide audio descriptions of the action taking place on the video portion of their programs to aid those who are visually impaired.

The retransmission consent proceeding is one which arises after several well-publicized cases where television stations and multichannel video program distributors (like cable and satellite television providers) have had disputes about the amount to be paid to the television broadcaster for the carriage of their signal by the MVPD.  In a few cases, this has resulted in the television station being pulled from the MVPD for some period of time until the dispute can be resolved.  Some MVPDs have argued that there should be more oversight over the process by which television stations can force the MVPD to pull the station’s signal until the retransmission negotiation is completed.  MVPDs argue that viewers, who can get the signal over the air as it is made available by the TV station for free, should not be held hostage to the negotiations and should not suffer when the station is pulled from the MVPD to further the TV station’s negotiation posture.  Broadcasters, on the other hand, argue that the system is working, that the number of stations who have been pulled from an MVPD is few, and that the MVPD should pay for the valuable television signal, just as it pays for other programming that it carries from cable networks.  The FCC is expected to ask whether some reform of the process, and perhaps some government oversight or mandatory mediation, should be required.


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Last month, the FCC released its proposal to restrict the movement of FM stations from rural areas into larger markets (which we summarized here).  The proposals that the FCC has put forward would greatly restrict the ability of broadcast owners to move stations to cover larger population areas – in many senses reversing the decision of the FCC just two