The vast majority of low-power television stations won't be eligible for new "Class A" licenses that protect them from losing their channel allotments to new full-power stations.
In rules issued last week, the FCC took a narrow view of which stations qualify for safeguards that Congress put into law late last year.
To qualify, lawmakers decided that LPTV outlets must have met three conditions as of Aug. 31, 1999, three months preceding the bill's enactment:
- Broadcast at least 18 hours daily.
- Produce three hours of local programming weekly.
- Comply with all FCC requirements that apply to LPTV stations.
Congress also gave regulators authority to grant Class A protections to other LPTV stations if warranted by the public interest. But the FCC said it would permit only insignificant deviations or ones caused by "compelling circumstances," such as natural disasters or interference problems that kept stations off the air during the three months preceding the law's enactment.
"The intent of Congress.was to establish the right of a very specific, already existing group," the FCC said in its order.
Congress passed the LPTV protections to preserve the small outlets that often produce more-diverse programming than full-power stations. Since the inception of LPTV service in 1982, the stations have faced the threat of displacement by larger stations, a shaky existence that prevented many from getting financing needed to maintain their operations. Also, the government's decision to allot a second channel to full-power stations during the transition to digital signals has caused a channel shortage that will result in many LPTV stations facing the risk of being bumped when full-power outlets go online.
So far, one LPTV outlet has gone dark after losing its channel assignment to a relocating full-power station, but the FCC says many more, particularly in urban areas with congested airwaves, may suffer similar fates.
It's unclear how many LPTV stations will benefit from Class A status. Already the FCC has said more than a third of 1,700-plus requests for certification are ineligible on their face. Officials for the Community Broadcasters Association have estimated that only 200 to 400 stations ultimately would receive the new licenses.
Maintaining that Congress meant the Class A grants to be just a one-time event, the FCC refused CBA's request to allow LPTV stations not now eligible to apply when they come into compliance. Also rejected was CBA's request to exempt foreign-language stations from the local-programming requirements.
The National Association of Broadcasters praised the FCC's decision. "We're pleased they gave careful consideration to the potential harm to full-power stations'digital transition that would have been created by a larger pool of eligible LPTV stations," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. Peter Tannenwald, CBA's Washington attorney, said his group will likely ask regulators to reconsider their decision not to allow LPTV outlets not meeting the qualifications to come into compliance and apply later. "We intend to pursue opportunities to expand the Class A service," he said.
The FCC did give LPTV stations some leeway when it comes to defining the market from which required locally produced programming may originate. To qualify as local content, programming must have been produced within the "Grade B," or outer edge, of a station's signal coverage. The FCC had originally proposed to count only the content created within the area for which the station would be protected from interference from other LPTV stations, a much smaller area.
In another concession, the agency said LPTV stations do not need to cede allotments to applicants whose full-power DTV channel requests are pending but not yet granted.
In all, there are roughly 2,200 LPTV outlets, which were first authorized in 1982 as a way to create opportunities for minorities, women and niche programmers who otherwise might not have access to the airwaves. LPTV signals reach roughly 15 to 20 miles from their transmission sites, while traditional full-power stations generally reach between 60 and 80 miles.
Since their creation, LPTV licensees have operated as a secondary service, meaning they were forbidden from causing interference to full-power broadcasters. When signal conflicts arose with existing or new full-power stations, LPTV outlets have been required to adjust their signal coverage or, in some cases, go off their air.