The compromise package of fines and consumer protections imposed by the FCC in exchange for approving the merger of the Sirius and XM satellite radio companies July 25 did not include key provisions sought by public radio advocates. Pubcasters lobbied members of Congress and commissioners to triple from 8 to 25 percent the spectrum capacity that the merged company would have to set aside for public interest and minority programming. They also asked the commission to require the inclusion of HD Radio receiving chips in satellite radio receivers, allowing subscribers to receive free digital signals from terrestrial stations. Neither provision was in the final agreement approved in a 3-2 party-line vote on Friday. Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who backed the provisions, ended up voting against the merger.
Until recently, it seemed that Simon Frech’s squabble with two religious broadcasters over an FM frequency would never end. In 1995, the FCC stopped considering competing applications from noncommercial broadcasters for radio and television frequencies, leaving Frech and many others in bureaucratic limbo. Adding it up
The FCC’s new point system for choosing among noncommercial broadcasters vying for the same frequency will reward several characteristics:
3 points if the applicant is locally based, which the FCC defines as being physically headquartered, having a campus, or having three-fourths of its board members within 25 miles of the community;
2 points if the applicant owns no other local broadcast stations. An applicant that can’t claim this credit but is part of a statewide network providing service to accredited schools can also claim 2 points;
1-2 points to an applicant whose frequency covers significantly more area and population than the next best proposal. “It’s frustrating,” says Frech, g.m. of KMUD in Garberville, Calif., who was about to launch a campaign to persuade the religious broadcasters to back off.
In 2000, members of Congress introduced four bills to head off FCC restrictions on religious broadcasters using reserved TV channels. The issue arose when a religious broadcaster had agreed to a channel swap with Pittsburgh pubTV channel WQEX and the commission considered requiring it to air some nonsecular “educational” content. See Current stories about the proposed Pittsburgh channel swap and the furor over restrictions on religious broadcasters. House bill H.R. 4201 (below) | Earlier House bill H.R. 3525 | Senate bill S. 2010 | Senate bill S. 2215
Noncommercial Broadcasting Freedom of Expression Act of 2000, H.R. 4201
Introduced April 6, 2000, by Rep. Charles “Chip” Pickering (R-Miss.) , H.R. 4201 addresses concerns that the FCC will attempt to regulate religious broadcasting on reserved educational channels. Mr. PICKERING (for himself, Mr. OXLEY, Mr. TAUZIN, Mr. LARGENT, and Mr. STEARNS) introduced the following bill; which was referred to the Committee on Commerce
A BILLTo amend the Communications Act of 1934 to clarify the service obligations of noncommercial educational broadcast stations.
Seventeen million dollars slipped through WQED’s fingers last week when a partner in its long-delayed deal to sell sister channel WQEX abruptly backed out, even though they had won a go-ahead at the FCC a month earlier. George Miles, president of the Pittsburgh station, paraphrased a newspaper report on the turnabout: “We have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.” Important issues about pubcasting’s reserved channels were at stake in both WQED’s victory and its defeat, but they got little attention as all eyes turned to a couple waves of explosive controversy surrounding the FCC decision:
First, in mid-December , reporters swarmed over the news that Presidential candidate and FCC overseer Sen. John McCain had intervened to hurry up the FCC decision on behalf of Paxson Communications, a campaign contributor that was part of the three-way WQEX deal. Then, at the end of the month, religious broadcasters recoiled and conservative politicians raged when the FCC spelled out its thinking behind its WQEX decision. This week, Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) and 42 or more co-sponsors will introduce a bill to undo the FCC’s new guidelines for religious broadcasters on reserved educational channels.
On Dec. 15, 1999, the FCC approved a swap/sale deal that would have enabled Pittsburgh public TV station WQED to sell its second channel, WQEX, to raise capital and pay longstanding debts. (The deal fell through Jan. 18, 2000, when Cornerstone TeleVision backed out.)
See also separate statements by the commissioners. WQED developed the complex plan after the commission in 1996 declined to drop the noncommercial reservation on WQEX.
A federal appeals court has upheld the little-noticed 1992 law setting aside 4–7 percent of direct broadcast satellite capacity for “noncommercial programming of an educational or informational nature.” The Aug. 30, 1996, decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., overturned a 1993 District Court decision that ruled the set-aside had violated DBS operators’ First Amendment rights. If the decision isn’t appealed successfully to the Supreme Court, the set-aside means that a DBS operator with 175 channels — that’s how many DirecTV claims — will have to offer 7-12 channels of noncommercial fare on its menu. The ruling provides ‘a great basis’ for arguing that broadcasters airing multiple digital channels be required to provide some noncommercial programming, says Sohn.
This 1996 federal Circuit Court opinion upholds a provision of the 1992 Cable Act that mandates noncommercial educational or informational programming on 4-7 percent of DBS operators’ channel capacity [DBS provision]. The law was not challenged by DBS operators but by Time Warner, which opposed many provisions of the Cable Act. The decision was a major victory for public TV, which had tried for years to obtain reserved channels in the new media that would be comparable to the FM and TV channel reservations of earlier decades. [Current coverage: appeal verdict, FCC rules.]
United States Court of Appeals
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT
Argued November 20, 1995; Decided August 30, 1996
TIME WARNER ENTERTAINMENT CO., L.P., APPELLANT/PETITIONER
FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION AND THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLEES/RESPONDENTS
ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA’S PUBLIC TELEVISION STATIONS, ET AL., INTERVENORS