Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin Friday outlined proposals he submitted to the other commissioners that he said will help out low-power and full-power TV stations in the switch to digital TV.
That news came in an unusual meeting in which the chairman outlined items that he planned to put on the agenda for the Feb. 26 meeting.
On the satellite front, Martin proposed clarifying that the carry-one, carry all regime for local TV stations applies to their DTV signals, as well, which means that if a satellite operator carries any local-station DTV signal in a market, it must carry all.
Martin did say that satellite operators would be allowed to phase in that regime, and that the commission would grant waivers on a case-case-basis if capacity constraints make that infeasible.
He pointed out that satellite is under greater capacity constraints with the spot beams it uses to deliver local-TV-station signals to a market along with its national programming.
Martin is also proposing to help low-power TV stations make the transition to digital more swiftly, including opening up a filing window so that they can apply for DTV licenses. Currently, there is no hard date for the 4,700 low-power stations and translators that will still be allowed to broadcast in analog after the transition, but Martin said he is proposing to make that hard date 2012.
Martin also wants to make it easier for class-A low-power stations -- which already have similar public-interest obligations to full-powers -- to upgrade to full-power status, although not necessarily increasing their power any.
He suggested that the move was not essentially a free pass to full cable must-carry status, and without even having to increase to full-power. "We will allow these stations to come forward and apply for full-power status if they can meet all of the full-power rules," he said, adding that this means “you still have to cover a certain percentage of licenses."
He pointed out that even full-power stations aren't required to operate at full-power, and that some have had to adjust up or down during the digital transition. "There are already variations among broadcasters," he added.
He also pointed out that once they became full-powers, the rules on attribution and ownership apply. "So there are instances in which some people may own full-power and low-power stations but could not convert the latter to full-power, and you can't convert [the latter] into a full-power if it would violate any of our ownership rules."
But those that did get full-power DTV status would become more valuable, allowing them to raise more money to convert even without the government funds and getting them cable must-carry status. That would help with the increasingly high-profile problem of DTV-to-analog converter boxes, most of which do not currently pass through analog signals, meaning that they would not receive low-power stations.
“How low-power stations are viewed over the air after the digital transition is easily addressed by communicating the availability of converter boxes that will 'pass through' the analog signal," National Cable & Telecommunications Association vice president Brian Dietz said. "It would be plainly irrelevant to burden cable operators with unconstitutional must-carry obligations.”