Pubcasters ask FCC for relief on ATSC broadcast rule

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Public broadcasting executives are urging the FCC to exempt noncommercial TV from a regulation that requires stations that transmit video in ATSC 3.0 to broadcast the same fare in ATSC 1.0, on grounds that many stations may be unable to comply.

Proponents of ATSC 3.0, the so-called Next Generation TV standard that the FCC authorized broadcasters to start using on a voluntary basis late last year, say the technology is a potential game-changer because it will allow stations to provide a host of new and enhanced services, including sophisticated interactive educational fare.

Because ATSC 3.0 is not compatible with ATSC 1.0 — the existing TV standard in the U.S. — consumers will have to purchase new receiver equipment to receive ATSC 3.0 signals over the air.

In the interest of protecting consumers, the FCC included a provision in the ATSC 3.0 regulations it adopted in November that requires broadcasters, at least for the foreseeable future, to simulcast the “primary video programming stream of their ATSC 3.0 channel in an ATSC 1.0 format, so that viewers will continue to receive ATSC 1.0 service,” the agency’s regulation says.

Under the FCC’s rules, stations also are generally supposed to simulcast through sharing partnerships with other stations in their markets, with some stations carrying the ATSC 1.0 signals of their partners while other stations carry the ATSC 3.0 signals.

As public TV leaders have pointed out in a series of meetings with top FCC officials in recent months, many stations may be unable to comply with the rule because their service contours don’t cover the same service areas of other stations in their markets. According to recent FCC filings, more than 100 of the nation’s 361 public TV stations could have problems complying with the regulation.

“Where they can do it, they will, but they just can’t do it everywhere,” said Lonna Thompson, EVP and general counsel of America’s Public Television Stations, in an interview. “It really is physically impossible.”

A coalition of public broadcasters including representatives from PBS, APTS and CPB first asked the FCC for the exemption in a Oct. 11 meeting, according to an FCC lobbying disclosure filing.

“Local public television stations, which rely in large part on individual donations to sustain operations, are inherently responsive to their viewers and will not transition to ATSC 3.0 prior to a carefully coordinated and market-specific analysis that it is appropriate to transition,” the public broadcasters continued. “The Commission should therefore either wholly exempt public stations from a simulcasting requirement or adopt a presumptive and streamlined waiver policy for noncommercial licensees.”

While the FCC declined to provide such relief in the ATSC 3.0 rules adopted Nov. 16, it did issue a further notice of proposed rulemaking seeking comment on the proposed relief.

“We also seek comment on whether to exempt [noncommercial educational] and/or Class A stations as a class from our local simulcasting requirement or adopt a presumptive waiver standard for such stations,” the FCC proposal says.

In follow-up visits with FCC officials Dec. 11 and 12, PBS President Paula Kerger and other network executives again urged FCC officials to eliminate the simulcast mandate for public broadcasters. “The simulcast mandate unnecessarily constrains the ability of public television stations to best serve local community needs, and the mandate would in fact preclude many public stations from bringing the educational benefits of the new standard to their communities,” said Kerger and colleagues Sara DeWitt, VP of PBSKids Digital, and Talia Rosen, assistant general counsel, according to a disclosure filing.

PBS, CPB and APTS are planning to file joint comments with the FCC to elaborate on their requests, Thompson said. Comments on the FCC’s notice are due Feb. 20, while reply comments are due March 20.

Under the law, the FCC is not supposed to rule on its pending proposals until after comments are filed.

The fact that the FCC has issued the proposal suggests that the agency is “inclined to offer relief” on the simulcast requirement, said Brad Deutsch, an attorney for Garvey Schubert Barer.

FCC officials are now “looking for enough distinctions between public TV and commercial operators to justify the different treatment,” Deutsch said in an email.

An FCC spokesperson declined comment on the agency’s plans for the proposals.

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