FCC: Ready, Set—Not Yet

ANALYSIS: Timetables pushed back on key broadcaster issues
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Can broadcasters expect to get ownership-rule relief or not? What recommendations will the FCC have for vouch safing the future of media, particularly local news media? How will the commission launch its plan to reclaim lots of spectrum from TV stations? These are all issues that had been penciled in for some kind of FCC action this fall.

Get out the erasers.

Taken together, they could have a big impact on what the broadcasting business will look like, but it is unclear just how soon the FCC is going to get around to deciding the issues upon which broadcaster fate is arguably hanging. Certainly, 2010 is looking less likely.

The following is a handicap of the status of those big three.

Media ownership rules.
The FCC’s goal for the congressionally mandated 2010 quadrennial media ownership rule review was actually to get it done in 2010, but that deadline is almost certainly moving into 2011. “We are moving forward,” was the word from an FCC staffer on background.

At stake is whether broadcasters can combine financial resources with other broadcasters or newspapers in smaller markets. Complicating the FCC timetable is a separate court challenge to the commission’s media ownership rules by fans and foes alike. The FCC is not precluded from making rule changes before that case is resolved, but the prospect of their being mooted by the court provides a rationale for delaying a decision.

Also delaying the process—or extending it to ensure transparency and robust input, depending on how you look at it—was the FCC’s decision to commission nine economic studies on various ownership issues, including the effect on news, minority ownership, and the impact and availability of local Internet content as an alternative.

Given that these must be finished, and peer-reviewed and FCC-reviewed and submitted to the public for inspection and comment, the FCC has run out of time for 2010. In addition, some observers say budgeting issues— finding the money to pay for the studies—have delayed the study process and, as a result, the timetable for the ownership review.

Future of media inquiry.
The FCC commissioned former Beliefnet.com co-founder Steven Waldman to come up with a report on the future of media to help it decide what, if anything, needed to be done to help preserve community media in the wake of the economic nosedive and the seismic shift in the commercial journalism model brought on by the advent of online. Waldman did not set a date for the report, saying only that it would be done by the end of the year.

But since that report and the media ownership rule review are linked—each was supposed to affect the other—don’t look for the report until sometime in 2011, about the same time as action on the ownership rule review.

Broadcast spectrum reclamation. Broadcasters are waiting to find out just how much spectrum they will have to give up to wireless broadband, and by when. The FCC is targeting 120 MHz, but that is a moving target rather than an immovable object, according to sources familiar with the FCC’s thinking.

When the FCC released the broadband plan, it also released an “action agenda” that set a third-quarter target—or by the end of September—for at least launching the process of reclaiming broadcast spectrum. The FCC did say its timetables “may be adjusted to respond to changing conditions as appropriate.” Consider this one adjusted.

But look for the commission to attempt to get something started by the end of the year. (Another of its spectrum-related action items, freeing up so-called “white spaces” for unlicensed devices, was approved at a Sept. 23 public meeting.)

The reclamation timetable is also not entirely in the FCC’s control. To get any broadcasters to take the FCC up on its offer, the commission needs to get congressional authority to use spectrum auction proceeds to pay broadcasters.

But the commission will likely try to get the ball rolling by December by making some technical changes to its rules. Two possibilities are changing the designation of the TV band to “flexible use” so it can accommodate the mobile and fixed wireless service the FCC is promoting, or allowing for channel sharing, which the rules currently prohibit.

E-mail comments to jeggerton@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @eggerton

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