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Judges Break Noncom Logjam - Broadcasting & Cable

Judges Break Noncom Logjam

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Federal judges have upheld the Federal Communications Commission's point system for doling out noncommercial TV and radio licenses when two or more applicants are competing for the same channel.

The legal battle over the point system has stalled the allocation of at least 515 and potentially many more new noncommercial FM licenses.

The point system was created four years ago to replace the cumbersome comparative hearing process, which sometimes took years for the commission to resolve.

The new system applies only to TV and FM channels reserved specifically for noncommercial use. Commercial licenses are granted via auction.

According to the point system, applicants actually based in the license market would get 3 points, another 2 points would be given to those who would be operating a station for the first time and also to those providing programming to local schools.

Finally, anyone offering new technical features could get either 1 or 2 points, depending on the merits of the technology. In a tie, a license will be awarded to the applicant owning the fewest stations or with the fewest pending license applications.

If a tie still remains, the applicants will be required to split time on the station.

The American Family Association had challenged the point system, arguing that the local ownership preference discriminated against national religious broadcasting networks.

 The court, however, found "there is a rational connection between local accountability and education, since it is reasonable to expect that locals are in the best position to judge their own educational needs." The specific channels reserved for noncommercial TV vary from market to market.

On the FM band, 20 channels are reserved for public broadcasters between 88 and 92 MHz. No AM channels are reserved specifically for noncommercial operators. Noncommercials may also apply for commercial channels, but since April 2003 the FCC has disqualified their requests when for-profit applicants also apply.

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