McAdams On: LPTVs

Thrown a paper tiger July 21, 2014
THANKS4, STOPPINGBY—The 5,800 or so low-power broadcast licensees in this country have a friend in Joe Barton, a Texas Republican on the House Commerce Committee. They have a friend as well in Greg Walden, the Oregon Republican who heads the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, himself a former broadcaster.

Barton and Walden are heavy hitters on the Hill, and for LPTVs to get a draft bill from Barton directing the Federal Communications Commission to “consider” them in the post-incentive auction repack is a big deal, and probably the most that they can hope for. The problem, as Barton conceded at a subcommittee hearing , is that his draft bill doesn’t to anything concrete to assure LPTV licensees they’ll have a channel assignment after the auction.

“They have a secondary license,” Barton said during a subcommittee hearing on Thursday. “They will still have a secondary license under this bill, but it directs the FCC to work with LPTV license holders.”

The real purpose of the bill is to put the commission on notice that it will be called out for indiscriminately crushing LPTVs and translators, which mostly serve communities and households in areas that otherwise would not have access to TV service.

“Every now and then, Congress breaks out in common sense. This bill is common sense,” Barton said. “Why should someone operating unlicensed devices in a white space have more rights than an LPTV operator?”

The reality is that LPTVs have been marginalized from the inception of the incentive spectrum auction. All but Class A stations are ineligible from participating. Louis Libin, executive director of the Advanced Television Broadcasting Alliance, testified on behalf of LPTV operators in support of Barton’s bill. He said that the FCC viewed their allotments as “free spectrum” since it didn’t have to share auction proceeds with licensees.

Lawmakers like Barton, who hails from Ennis, Texas, and Walden, whose district is the predominantly rural and relatively low-income area of Oregon, have constituents who rely on LP and translator TV service. They and others are beginning to tread a bit more carefully on what has thus far been a disunited and silent body of voters. No one knows how many there are, or just what they’d have to say if the TV channels they watch suddenly go dark, a distinct possibility after the spectrum auction. It’s a certainty for some LPTV stations, but no one will know how many and where until after the auction.

This is rightly a concern for lawmakers, especially those in rural areas, who will be expected to explain what just happened to their constituents’ TV service and why. Such are the pesky details arising now, two years after Congress spent the money it hopes to make in the auction of an undeterminable amount of TV spectrum.

The LPTV and translator licensees most vulnerable are those in and around metropolitan areas where frequencies are at a premium. Barton’s draft bill does nothing to protect those operators, nor can it, really. The upshot is the potential loss of several non-English TV stations serving specific language enclaves in various population centers.

This would be counter to the FCC’s charter of fostering diversity among media outlets, though anyone who’s monitored the commission for any amount of time is, at the very least, skeptical about its level of concern for preserving diversity and protecting the disenfranchised.

The only thing Barton’s bill could do is compel the commission to appear as if it tried to save as many LPTV and translators as possible. As several other members of the subcommittee observed, why bother?

Note to LPTV and translator licensees: Expect no miracles.

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