Class A TV rule refined

The Commission has clarified and modified the programming and technical aspects of its newly created Class A television service.

Must-carry. The Commission clarified that Class A stations have the same limited mandatory carriage rights on area cable and satellite systems as LPTV stations. Although petitioners had requested that the Commission grant Class A stations the same full must-carry rights that are afforded to TV broadcast systems, the Commission said that it could not grant those rights without approval from Congress. The decision was not surprising in light of the recent order implementing the Satellite Home Viewer Protection Act of 1999, in which the agency concluded that Class A stations are low-power stations for mandatory carriage purposes and are therefore not entitled to mandatory satellite carriage.

Offsets. In another significant move, the Commission modified its rule permitting Class A stations to operate without a carrier frequency offset. In response to a request filed by Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, the Commission determined that mandatory offset operations would allow for more efficient use of broadcast spectrum by making room for more new LPTV or Class A stations and/or by allowing more existing stations to increase facilities. Under the new rule, all Class A station licensees must operate with a carrier offset by Jan. 13, 2002. Between now and then, all Class A construction permits and pending applications for such permits must be amended to specify a carrier offset. The Commission reserves the right to direct any Class A station licensee, permittee or Class A-eligible LPTV applicant to immediately operate its station with a carrier offset at the request of a displaced Class A station, displaced Class A-eligible LPTV station, or applicant or allotment petitioner for a new NTSC television station. This new rule will generally not apply to television translator and non-Class A LPTV stations.

Local programming. The Commission also redefined local programming under its Class A rules. The amount of local programming a station broadcasts determines if that station is eligible for Class A status. However, the Commission's initial rule could be read to mean that any programming produced within the Grade B contour of any commonly controlled station could be considered local, even if that station were distant from the station airing the programming. That was not the Commission's intent. The new, clearer definition of local programming covers material produced within the predicted Grade B contour of the station broadcasting the program or produced at the station's main studio. Multiple commonly controlled Class A stations may consider programming local if it is produced within the predicted Grade B contour of any physically contiguous commonly controlled station. Also, the main studio for a group of commonly controlled and contiguous stations can be within the contour of any of those stations.

Dual-network rule relaxed

The Commission has amended the dual-network rule to allow common ownership of one of the four major networks (ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC) and one of the emerging television networks (WBTN and UPN). The rule change accommodates Viacom's ownership of CBS and its pre-existing stake in UPN. According to the Commission, the growth of cable television networks, direct broadcast satellite services and the deployment of digital television negates concerns about any negative impact the repeal would have on competition and diversity.

DTV dateline

Commercial stations with DTV authorizations must complete construction by May 1, 2002 and, for noncommercial (NCE-TV) stations, the deadline is May 1, 2003. The Commission will grant extensions of these deadlines where construction has been prevented due to causes beyond the licensee's control (e.g., weather or zoning problems, unavailability of tower space, unavoidable construction delays). Extensions are granted for six months only, although the Mass Media Bureau is permitted to approve one renewal.

Commercial stations with authorizations that do not make full use of their DTV allocations nevertheless will be protected from interference on the basis of their allocations until Dec. 31, 2004. The date for NCE-TV is Dec. 31, 2005. Thereafter, only the granted authorization (license) will be protected.

On or before Dec. 31, 2003 (Dec. 31, 2004, for NCE-TV), stations with both their NTSC and DTV channels in the core (Channel 2-51) will have to elect whether to use their existing NTSC channel or their DTV channel for DTV. Actual implementation of the election may be delayed until the final turn-off date for one channel or the other.

Harry C. Martin is an attorney with Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth PLC, Arlington, VA.

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July 10, 2001, is the deadline for all stations to place in their public files their problems/programs lists and quarterly Forms 398 (Children's Programming Report) for April 1 to June 30. Stations in the following states must file their biennial ownership reports by Aug. 1: California, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wisconsin.