Public TV asks FCC for flexibility in preserving multicast channels amid ATSC 3.0 transition

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To bring more public TV stations into the world of ATSC 3.0 “NextGen” broadcasting, the FCC needs to follow through on a proposal to modify its rules on simulcasts with ATSC 1.0 signals. That’s what America’s Public Television Stations and PBS told the commission last week as part of an ongoing rulemaking that aims to clarify regulatory confusion resulting from the launch of NextGen services.

The rulemaking proceeding the commission announced last fall addresses a sticky question about how TV stations can continue to reach viewers with multicast subchannels — for public stations, services such as World, Create, PBS Kids and state government channels — as the ATSC 3.0 transition continues

The problem stems from channel-sharing arrangements that have been a necessary part of the transition to ATSC 3.0. To comply with the FCC’s mandate that broadcasts continue to be available to viewers with current sets, which do not receive ATSC 3.0 signals, stations have to provide ATSC 1.0 simulcasts of their primary (“.1”) program stream, using another station’s ATSC 1.0 transmitter. 

That posed some regulatory challenges for the FCC. If one station is rebroadcasting another station’s 1.0 stream, which station is responsible if the originating station’s programming violates FCC rules?

For such “.1” simulcasts, the commission created a scheme that depends on licenses, not transmitters. Regardless of whose transmitter is being used for a primary “.1” stream, the station providing the programming bears responsibility. The commission also made clear that noncommercial status follows the license of the station providing programming, so a public station using its ATSC 3.0 signal to host commercial competitors’ programming doesn’t imperil its own noncommercial license. 

But a big loophole remained. While FCC rules don’t require additional multicast streams to be simulcast in ATSC 3.0 along with 1.0, broadcasters are increasingly eager to make sure their additional channels are available to viewers in both formats. Stations stepping up to use their own transmitters as ATSC 3.0 host facilities in their markets don’t want to give up their subchannels, which means they need to make arrangements with ATSC 1.0 stations in their markets to carry the multicast channels as well as their “.1” main channels. 

Stations often divide their rebroadcast multicast channels among several broadcasters due to the limitations of ATSC 1.0 signal capacity — a situation not covered by the FCC’s current ATSC 3.0 rules. As a result, the commission must authorize each multicast situation through waivers and temporary authority that must be renewed every six months.

“This case-by-case process is resource-intensive for both the Commission and broadcasters, and under this approach it is difficult for both Commission staff and potential viewers to track where streams are being hosted,” the FCC said in the rulemaking notice it put out in November. 

It’s problematic for public broadcasters, too. In their joint filing, PBS and APTS pointed out that in the absence of a licensing scheme for multicasting, commercial owners often resort to contractual arrangements in which a host station gets indemnified from any liability for the subchannels it carries. That’s literally impossible for some public TV stations licensed to government or university entities that don’t allow indemnification contracts, making it difficult or impossible for those stations to participate in marketwide ATSC 3.0 launches. 

Signal overlap is another challenge, APTS COO Lonna Thompson told Current. Because public TV networks often use transmitter sites that don’t exactly match the coverage of commercial signals, they need more flexibility to meet the FCC’s mandate that ATSC 1.0 and 3.0 coverage remain comparable. In one recent case, she said, a statewide network almost lost the opportunity to take part in a major-market ATSC 3.0 launch because it was waiting for an FCC waiver to allow it to use two of its transmitter sites to provide ATSC 1.0 replication for the programming of the commercial ATSC 3 host station. 

“It was frustrating to the commercial broadcasters involved, as it was to the public TV broadcaster,” she said. “They were able to participate, but it really, really got down to the wire.”

Along with APTS and PBS, several large commercial broadcast groups and the National Association of Broadcasters have also filed comments supporting the “mix-and-match” licensing approach that would create a regular licensing scheme for multicasts spread across multiple stations’ transmitters. 

So far, Thompson said, the only opposition has come from cable-industry trade groups that continue to raise questions about how cable systems will handle the ATSC 3.0 transition. Those concerns, she says, are largely theoretical; for now, cable companies are not required to carry ATSC 3.0 signals or multicast channels. 

Reply comments in the proceeding will be due in mid-March, after which Thompson says APTS hopes to meet with commission staff to clarify any remaining questions, especially about what she says is simply a delaying tactic on the part of cable companies that don’t want to have to retune their receiving equipment as stations move their ATSC 1.0 transmissions to different channels. 

“I’m hopeful the commission will see through this and grant the request in full that NAB put forward,” she said. 

With the additional flexibility and certainty that a licensed “mix-and-match” approach would provide, Thompson said, more public broadcasters will be able to join marketwide NextGen conversions and ultimately provide more multicast services such as World, Create and PBS Kids in HD over ATSC 3.0. 

As the transition to NextGen continues, there’s another goal on the horizon as well. In their comments, APTS and PBS also supported the eventual licensing of “non-simulcast” streams only in ATSC 3.0, providing additional multicasting services that take advantage of the format’s additional capacity. 

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