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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Program Origination for FM Translators?

It appears that the FCC might be willing to entertain the possibility of FM translators doing more than just a re-broadcast of full service FM stations.

For 35 years now, FM translators have been limited to just re-broadcasting other FM signals. When the FCC first authorized FM translators, it determined in its 1970 Report and Order that the sole purpose of these FM translators would be to re-broadcast full service FM stations.

In a 1990 Report and Order, the FCC further tightened its FM translator rules by prohibiting any extension of an FM station's signal using a co-owned translator, and prohibited just about any support or business relationship between an outside-the-service-area FM translator and the full service FM station being re-broadcast. The Commission considered but refused to allow any relaxation of the FM translator programming rules based upon a concern about the "possible competitive impact" that FM translators could have on FM broadcast stations.

Randy Miller, a Taylorville, Illinois broadcaster, on April 27, 2006 filed a Petition for Rulemaking at the Commission asking that the FM translator rules be changed to allow for the local origination of programming on an FM translator. Randy in his petition defines local origination as any programming originating from a main studio that is otherwise in compliance with the broadcast station main studio rule and is located within 25 miles of the FM translator.

Randy describes his reasoning as follows:
The crux of my argument is the fact that in 1982, the FCC allowed television translators to begin locally originated programming, because the Commission has always put local service at the top of its priority list. That [television translator program origination] decision had no demonstrable adverse effect, public interest or otherwise, on television broadcasting. That's what I'm asking the Commission to do in my [FM translator] petition ... put local service to local communities, as a continued service priority. ... There are such things as live coverage of city council meetings, additional high school sports play-by-play broadcasts, additional church services, and other music formats, that a Taylorville, IL FM translator being able to locally originate, could provide the approximately 5-mile radius of listeners in the Taylorville city limits. Putting this kind of programming on my Taylorville full-power FM would not be practical, as it wouldn't apply to listeners outside the Taylorville city limits.
Somewhat surprisingly, Randy's petition was quickly placed on a May 10, 2006 FCC Public Notice asking for public comments on his proposal. The FCC's Public Notice gives until June 9, 2006 for the filing of comments in support or in opposition to his proposal. Comments may be filed through the Commission's Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) by referencing RM-11331.

Randy's proposal is likely to be just one of many proposals for changes to the FM translator rules. Reportedly, the NAB is preparing a petition for rulemaking that will ask the FCC allow AM stations to re-broadcast their programming on an FM translator, something that is now also strictly prohibited.

It can be expected that comments filed in response to Randy's local origination proposal will range from a plea to strictly maintain the status quo which protects existing FM stations from competition, to advocating a wide open structure under which any programming can be broadcast on an FM translator. Randy's proposal appears to be in the middle, as it requires that the programming originate from a local studio which will help serve the dual purposes of localism and program diversity.

Also in the mix for FM translators is the Commission's current Low Power FM (LPFM) proceeding. The Commission is contemplating the possibility of later-filed LPFM applications taking priority over earlier-filed FM translator applications, and even the possibility of LPFM applications bumping FM translator stations off the air. In a nutshell, the FCC's staff and LPFM proponents have come to realize that if most of FM translators applied for are granted, there will be few if any remaining opportunities for additional LPFM stations. The result of this proceeding may be that the FCC makes substantial changes in the criteria for authorizing pending but ungranted FM translator applications, and possibly even makes changes in protections to existing FM translators.

While the first reaction of many broadcasters to local program origination on FM translators, or even to AM rebroadcasting on FM translators, is likely to be adverse because of the fear of creating additional competition in local markets, I believe that broadcasters need to take a step back and ask whether, in the long run, additional broadcast facilities ultimately benefit them and broadcasting as a whole.

With all the fighting broadcasters did against LPFM, the net result was that LPFM became the one competitive broadcast facility in the marketplace that broadcasters cannot own. Competition comes from many media outside of broadcasting in today's market. I believe that broadcasters should strive to have as many outlets available to own and program as possible in their marketplace. I should note here in stating this opinion that clients of mine, as well as I, have ownership interests in FM translator facilities.

There are also possible ways that FM boosters might better serve broadcasters. Several years ago, Lake Havasu, Arizona broadcaster Chris Rolando filed a Petition for Rulemaking asking the FCC to allow FM boosters to extend the reach of an FM station if technically possible, a petition which was re-filed in response to the FCC's Allocations Streamlining proceeding.

With both FM translators and FM boosters, the question broadcasters should be asking is not how to stop such proposals in order to maintain the status quo, but rather how would the various proposals being considered assist broadcasters in expanding and solidifying their competitive positions against so many of the competing non-broadcast technologies now confronting radio broadcasting.

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