Yesterday, the FCC initiated a rule making proceeding to reinstate its prior video description rules with certain modifications, as required by the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010 (Act). The proposed rules would require large market broadcast affiliates of the top four national networks and most cable operators and DBS providers to provide programming with audio narrated descriptions of a television program’s key visual elements beginning as soon as first quarter 2012.  Davis Wright Tremaine previously summarized the Act in our earlier advisory available here.

The Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) takes the first step toward restoring the video description regulations that the FCC previously adopted in 2000, but which were subsequently vacated by the U.S.  Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Now with explicit Congressional authorization, the FCC seeks to restore the video description rules by Oct. 8, 2011, as required by the Act. The FCC proposes a quick implementation, with the video description and pass-through rules beginning Jan. 1, 2012. The most significant elements of the reinstated video description rules are: 

  • Broadcast affiliates of the top four national networks—ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC—located in the top 25 television markets must provide 50 hours per calendar quarter of prime time and/or children’s programming with video descriptions.
  • The top five national nonbroadcast networks must provide 50 hours per calendar quarter of prime time and/or children’s programming with video descriptions. The proposed rule would be applied to multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), including cable operators and DBS providers with 50,000 or more subscribers, and presumably then be applied to the top five networks through affiliation agreements.
  • “Live” and “near live” programming is exempt from the rules.
  • In order to count toward the requirement, the programming must not have been aired previously with video descriptions, on that particular broadcast station or MVPD channel, more than once.
  • All broadcast stations, regardless of market size or affiliation, and all MVPDs, regardless of the number of subscribers they serve, must “pass through” video description when such descriptions are provided and when the station or program distributor has the technical capability to do so.

In addition to proposing to reinstate the rules previously adopted by the FCC, the item asks many practical implementation questions about refreshing market rankings, applicability of the rules to low power television, and what constitutes the “technical capability” to pass through video descriptions. In particular, the FCC seeks to refresh the list of the top 25 DMAs, as well as update the top five national nonbroadcast networks subject to the rule. In determining the top five nonbroadcast networks, the FCC proposes to exclude from the top five any nonbroadcast network that does not provide, on average, at least 50 hours per quarter of prime time non-exempt programming, i.e., programming that is not live or near-live. The NPRM specifically seeks comment from any network that believes it should be excluded from the top five covered networks because it does not offer enough pre-recorded prime time or children’s programming.

Continue Reading FCC Initiates Rule Making to Reinstate Video Description Regulations for Television Programming

As our colleague Brian Hurh wrote recently on our sister blog, the www.broadbandlawadvisor.com, a federal district court last week granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting the mere retransmission of broadcast television programs over the Internet, without more.  The order is not only important for its confirmation of a 2008 Copyright Office decision rejecting Internet retransmission of video

Last week the FCC rejected a request by a low power television broadcaster seeking an experimental license to test a technology that would allow broadcast television stations to provide broadband access.  The brief decision, available here, was issued by the FCC’s Media Bureau and rejected the request primarily on the grounds that the technology the LPTV broadcaster sought to test is inconsistent with the existing ATSC standard for transmission of digital television signals in the U.S.  This decision brought about a rebuke by a Wall Street Journal columnist, suggesting that the FCC was not fully exploring one way to rapidly deploy broadband through existing TV licensees, in fears of foregoing the revenues that would come from an auction of reclaimed television spectrum.   This issue arises while the FCC considers the digital conversion of LPTV, and the future of the television spectrum generally.

As has been well known and discussed for at least the last decade, the ATSC standard chosen for digital television broadcast service in the United States is not ideal for mobile service and is not well suited for two-way broadband service.  The current ATSC standard was designed to provide a signal to fixed locations for traditional in-home television watching.   As we have written before, in 2000, in the early days of the digital television conversion, some broadcasters suggested that the system be changed to accommodate a more robust signal allowing better mobile reception and other services that maximize the capacity of the digital channel. That proposal was rejected for fears of slowing the digital conversion, but is seemingly being revisited now. 

Continue Reading FCC Rejects Request by Low Power Television Broadcaster to Test Technology to Enable Broadband Service Over Broadcast Spectrum

The FCC’s auction of new VHF TV channels in New Jersey and Delaware (about which we have written many times including here) has resulted in only three qualified bidders.  Despite this lack of interest in these VHF channels, the FCC seems to be looking at VHF as a way to facilitate its announced plans for the clearing of significant portions of the television spectrum for wireless broadband use.  The Commission this week set the comment date – March 18, 2011 – on ways to overcome the issues that have been posed to TV stations that have remained in VHF channels after the digital transition.  In the same proceeding, the FCC also seeks comments on allowing TV stations to share the same 6 MHz channel, with both stations retaining their cable and satellite must-carry rights.  That same proceeding implies that we may well have seen the last new over-the-air television stations.  This crucial proceeding on the future of the television band requires careful attention by all parties who may be affected by the many proposals contained in this relatively compact Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. 

The first part of the FCC’s proposal (about which we previously wrote here), is to look at ways to get some of the television stations to give up their current channel to allow the FCC to use it for broadband, and having that station share another station’s channel to continue to provide its program service on what is the equivalent of a digital subchannel.  The proposal to encourage multiple TV stations to share the same 6 MHz channel raises many issues.  First, the FCC recognizes that the proposal may result in some television stations giving up their ability to broadcast in High Definition (one of the principal reasons for the initial transition to digital), but suggests that stations sharing the same channel could work out "dynamic arrangements" to allow sharing the spectrum flexibly, increasing the portion digital bandwidth allocated to one station when it has programming that would benefit from higher definition, while switching some of the bandwidth allocation to the other station at other times. 

While the Commission assumes that each station will continue to exist as an independent station even when sharing a channel with another station, many of its questions in this proceeding seem to signal uncertainty about this conclusion.  Issues on which the Commission seeks comment include:

  • What effect will channel sharing have on the deployment of HD programming and mobile television?  The Commission does not ask about 3-D television, which some broadcasters have begun to experiment with, and might be worth a comment if there are those who expect that to be part of the television future that could be affected by channel sharing arrangements.
  • In channel sharing, would each station be able to maintain a Standard Definition signal at all times?
  • The Commission assumes that each station sharing a single channel (and thus a single transmission facility) would retain a separate license, and be individually responsible for FCC-rule compliance (e.g. EAS, indecency, children’s television, political broadcasting, etc).  How would responsibility over the technical compliance be apportioned?
  • Should commercial and non-commercial stations be allowed to share the same channel?  Could commercial stations share channels that have, to this point, been reserved for noncommercial educational uses?
  • Will there be a loss in service to the public from such combinations?  Will there be television "white" and "gray" areas created, i.e. areas where there will be no over-the-air television service or only a single service?
  • Should cable and satellite service be included when evaluating questions of loss of service?
  • What impact should channel sharing have on other FCC rules, like the media ownership rules?

Perhaps the biggest issue with channel sharing is the cable and satellite carriage issue, which raised a number of issues for the Commission.  The issues, summarized below, also demonstrate the Commission’s tentativeness in its conclusion that two stations sharing the same channel are really independent stations.

Continue Reading While Few Vie for New VHF TV Stations in NJ and Delaware, FCC Sets Comment Date on Improving VHF Digital Reception and TV Channel Sharing With Must Carry Rights As Ways to Help Clear TV Band for Broadband Users

The Commission today released an Order conditionally designating 9 companies to be database administrators for white spaces devices.  As we wrote in our article describing the FCC’s recent decision on reconsideration of its White Spaces order, these administrators will be responsible for maintaining a database of all users of the TV spectrum who must be protected from interference from white spaces devices.  Protected entities include TV stations, LPTV stations and TV translators, cable and satellite receive locations, certain wireless microphone users, and the paths between TV stations and translators.  Each database must maintain all of this information, so that white spaces devices can determine what channels must be protected in areas in which they are operating. 

The conditional nature of the designation reflects the fact that these administrators had requested designation in late 2009, before the recent Order on Reconsideration which adopted the new requirements that all white spaces devices must communicate with these administrators instead of relying on any sort of spectrum sensing.  Thus, the FCC is requiring the proposed administrators to update their filings to reflect that they can meet the new requirements for the maintaining the database.  One of these new requirements is one of security – so that it can be ensured that the users will have an accurate data base from which to operate, without fear of tampering or other abuses.  The FCC will also require that each administrator attend an education session conducted by the FCC, and to go through a rigorous testing period – with tests conducted by the FCC to make sure that the administrator’s service will actually provide the necessary information to protect incumbent TV spectrum users from interference from white spaces devices.

Continue Reading FCC Designates Database Adminstrators for TV White Spaces Devices

Many broadcasters, both television and radio, have been running the NAB spots on the Future of Television.  Those spots contain a description of the service available from local television stations and the new technologies that over-the-air television are in the process of deploying, and end with the suggestion that the Future of Broadcast Television lies in "technology not regulation from Washington DC."  Obviously, these ads are geared to address some of the many legislative and administrative issues facing TV broadcasters – including the proposals to take back some of the TV spectrum for wireless broadband uses.  Given that these spots could be arguably be seen as addressing Federal issues, to be safe, they should be identified as issue ads in stations’ public inspection files, and appropriate information about those spots should be placed in the files.

The NAB, in announcing the availability of these spots, suggested this same precaution.  We’ve written before about issue ads, and the need to place notations in the public file about these ads. For instance, when stations ran ads on the broadcast performance royalty, we suggested that same treatment (and proponents of the royalty complained that broadcasters might not be making such notations).  What needs to go in the public file?  As the issues are Federal ones (as opposed to state and local issues that have lesser disclosure obligations), the requirements are similar to those that apply to political candidates. 

Continue Reading Is Your Station Running the NAB Future of Television Spots? Are You Identifying Them As Issue Ads in Your Public File?

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed the CALM Act, directing the Federal Communications Commission to adopt regulations controlling the volume of commercials on television broadcast stations, cable systems, satellite, and other multichannel video programming providers. This bill was passed by the Senate in September.  Once signed by the President, the Federal Communications Commission will be required to adopt a rule to implement the legislation within one year, and the rule is to become effective within one year after its adoption. The FCC rule is to adopt parts of the ATSC A/85 standard, which seeks to target the volume of commercials in digital programming to the volume of dialogue (or other “anchor element”) in the accompanying program. An interesting description of the issues that must be addressed in determining just what is "loud," and for controlling that volume, can be found in a recent Wall Street Journal article (here, subscription may be required). 

Congressional estimates are that the costs of necessary equipment range from a few thousand dollars to $20,000 per device, for an aggregate industry cost of tens of millions of dollars. Congress anticipated that the costs may be burdensome for small cable operators and smaller market television broadcasters, and provided that waivers may be granted for financial hardship for one year renewable terms  The Commission may also grant waivers or exemptions from the rule that it adopts for classes of broadcasters and multichannel video programming distributors under the FCC’s general waiver authority.

Continue Reading Congress Passes CALM Act to Restrict Loud Commercials

The FCC today started an examination of the future of the spectrum currently used by broadcast television, beginning the formal process of implementing the ideas raised in its Broadband Plan of repurposing some of that spectrum for use by wireless broadband technologies. Specifically, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, seeking comment on a number of issues. While the full text of the FCC’s order has not been released, many of the issues for consideration can be gleaned from the comments made at the FCC meeting. In the initial presentation made about the NPRM, it was stated that the principal issues to be addressed in the NPRM were:

  • Allowing new primary allocations in the television spectrum for fixed and mobile wireless users.
  • Providing a framework that would allow two or more broadcast television stations to share a single 6 MHz channel, retaining full must-carry rights for each station, while allowing for the return of spectrum to the FCC to be auctioned for wireless uses
  • Looking at ways to increase the value of VHF television channels (channels 2 through 13) for DTV use, including proposals to allow stations operating on such channels to operate at higher power and to increase performance standards for indoor antennas

Co-primary uses could be important for many TV users, as currently LPTV and TV translator stations are secondary services, implying that such services might be preempted by new primary wireless users.  The enhancement of the VHF spectrum would be important to any attempt to dedicate significant spectrum to wireless broadband without substantial disruption to over-the-air television, as without the use of those channels (which are underutilized, particularly in urban markets, as they have proved to be very susceptible to interference and do not provide as broad coverage as VHF analog service did), the ability to repack the TV spectrum to clear portions of the spectrum for wireless would be very restricted in the major metropolitan areas where any spectrum crunch is likely to be most acute. 

As FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski stated, this was an efficient presentation on an important issue. The explanation of the proposals took far less time than each of the Commissioner’s individual statements, all of which raised important issues that will be addressed in this proceeding.   The FCC public notice about this proceeding is available by clicking here.  But an examination of each of the Commissioner’s statements (which are available through the links on their names, below) is important to understand the scope of the issues to be addressed by the FCC. 

Continue Reading FCC Adopts Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Looking to Reallocate Some TV Spectrum to Wireless Broadband

Last week, we wrote that the FCC is going ahead with a rulemaking looking at how broadband needs may require some reallocation of the TV spectrum to wireless uses.  The initiation of a rulemaking on that issue is planned for the next FCC meeting in late November.  With that proceeding about to begin, the FCC today froze all applications for new Low Power Television (LPTV) stations and for TV Translators, and for major changes in existing LPTV and TV translator stations.  Over a year ago, after not having accepted applications for a decade during the DTV transition, the FCC allowed the filing of applications for new LPTV stations and TV translators in rural areas.  Finding that much of the demand for new translators has been met in these rural areas in the intervening period, the FCC has now determined that, until the spectrum needs for television and broadband are more certain, it would not accept any more applications for these stations. It appears that the long-planned window for LPTV stations in major markets will not happen in the foreseeable future.

The freeze does allow for the filing of minor changes to LPTV and TV translator stations, for applications to flash cut to digital, and for displacement applications if a full-power station precludes the continued operation of such a station on its current channel.  LPTV and translator stations still operating on channels 52 through 69, which have already been reallotted for wireless uses, can also file displacement applications during the freeze.

Continue Reading FCC Freezes Applications for New LPTV and TV Translator Stations While Contemplating How the Broadband Plan Will Affect the TV Spectrum