Deborah Tate, FCC Commissioner
UPDATE 3:45 PM - A spokeswoman for Tate confirmed this afternoon that the commissioner "supports a Notice of Inquiry into the issues raised regarding cable carriage of LPTV stations."-Ed.
Two days ago, when FCC Commissioner Deborah Tate emerged from a Vanderbilt University forum, some Tennessee broadcasters and their Washington advocates intercepted her and her colleagues, seeking an audience. They felt slighted.
Earlier in the week, the FCC on short notice scrubbed a Nashville public hearing on a Low-Power Television licensing issue that the industry says is crucial to its survival beyond the nation's mandated switch to digital-television broadcasting (DTV), Feb. 17, 2009, about 120 days from now. The hearing had been set to precede the obesity forum here in town, Wednesday morning.
As a result of the cancellation, the nation's LPTV broadcasters -- including at least 17 stations in Tennessee -- say they're desperate. Their complaint is echoed by the Coalition for Local Television, which says it reflects the interests of more than 2,600 LPTV stations nationwide.
Neither Tate nor her staff have yet responded to VNC questions posed via Tate's assistant, at mid-afternoon yesterday.
At stake: FCC permission for the top tier of low-power television broadcasters to become full-power stations, thereby winning the right to insist they be carried on Comcast and other cable-television systems.
Securing "must-carry" status among cable operators would ensure that current viewers of low-power stations' over-the-air signal could continue to watch via cable, without the LP stations having to invest in digital-broadcast upgrades, which the industry says its members can't afford.
Bart Walker, who owns WGNS Channel 11 in Murfreesboro, said he believes the FCC needs to continue its discussions of the issue, rather than let it die. "Somebody must be against it," he said cautiously during an interview yesterday with VNC.
Not surprisingly, somebody is against it, and she doesn't mind telling you: Stacey Briggs (at left), president of the Tennessee Cable Television Association, told VNC yesterday that her counterpart national cable association is "making known" its opposition to rule changes that would put pressure on cable operators. She provided a copy of the industry's talking points (PDF here). Among other things, Cable argues that a change, now, would contravene 1992 reforms.
Briggs said LPTV programmers can currently attempt to negotiate standard commercial carriage of their channels with local cable system operators. Buying such cable carriage is generally regarded as too expensive for small stations.
Addressing costs, Walker noted that given the much higher costs of becoming a full-power stations, he thinks the FCC should, in the interest of diversity of ownership and programming, require cable operators to carry all LP stations that provide an adequate signal to the operator and required programming, rather than requiring all LP stations to move up to full power. The FCC action sought by LPTV would essentially reopen a full-power application window that has been closed for years, but which was anticipated by LPTV legislation dating back to 1982.
Rick Goetz, a broadcast and electronics engineer based in Hendersonville, owns seven LPTV stations -- including the iconically named WKRP in Lebanon (Channel 6), through which he broadcasts RetroTV. His licenses include not only Tennessee properties, but stations in Aspen, Colo. and Florida. Goetz told VNC yesterday he plans to buy three more stations, and will be more likely to do so if the FCC supports LP's moving-up to full power.
Despite the FCC's abrupt move, LPTV advocates converged Wednesday on Vanderbilt Medical Center's Langford Auditorium.
Having flown-in from Washington despite the hearing's cancellation, Amy Brown, executive director of the Community Broadcasters Association, asked Tate and fellow Commissioners Robert McDowell and Jonathan Adelstein to meet informally with her constituents in the lobby.
They agreed. LPTV then reprised its argument to allow LPTC stations to apply for full-power status. According to Brown during an interview yesterday with VNC, Tate and her colleagues said they were in favor of the changes sought by LPTV, but said they have doubts about the FCC's legal authority to make changes in federal law.
Brown said Tate insisted the commissioners need time to consider "questions and concerns" about policy that has been drafted by FCC staff. The draft apparently supports creating opportunities for LPTV applications for full power, but the policy, per routine, has not yet been revealed to the industry or the general public.
Brown said Tate's posing of questions and concerns is "just a stall tactic," designed essentially to minimize controversy until after Inauguration Day. Brown said as many as 250 LPTV stations could be forced to "go dark" by the end of 2009, mainly because of lack of cable carriage.
Brown says her constituents want to ensure the FCC commissioners either take administrative action in favor of LPTV immediately, or issue a notice of proposed rulemaking that would trigger a period of public comment, FCC hearings and other protcols that would keep the issue alive. The next FCC agenda meeting is currently set for Election Day, Nov. 4.
Brown said the LPTV sector wants FCC action before a new occupant arrives The White House, at which point FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, a Bush Republican and sometime LP industry supporter, will probably depart. ♦