Buffalo Stance: Sinclair, Nexstar Seek Channel Change


BUFFALO, N.Y. — Hertel Avenue is known among locals as a hot spot for shopping, food and entertainment. It’s also the home for the studios of a Sinclair Broadcast Group-owned FOX affiliate serving Western New York.

As part of the FCC’s post-spectrum auction repack process, this TV station is poised to change channels. So is a Nexstar Media Group-owned affiliate of The CW Network that’s a sibling to the market’s CBS affiliate.

Here’s the rub: The repack would put the Sinclair station where the Nexstar station presently is — unless a NPRM to change the plan is approved by the FCC.

Sinclair has owned WUTV-29 in Buffalo since 1997, when it acquired it from — ironically — the forerunner to what is today Nexstar, ARBY Partners.

It’s had an interesting history, and had Sinclair moved forward with its Tribune Broadcasting merger WUTV likely would have shed its FOX network affiliation.

Today, WUTV’s FOX programming is solidly in place, as the station serves not only Buffalo-Niagara Falls but also Toronto, Hamilton, and St. Catharines, Ontario in Canada.

As of October 2018, WUTV has been using digital channel 14. But, a change is needed thanks to the relinquishing of spectrum to wireless companies. As such, WUTV was to move to digital channel 36.

Enter Nexstar’s WNLO-23, which has a channel-sharing agreement with CBS sibling WIVB-4. To accommodate WUTV, WNLO was to shift from digital channel 36 to channel 32.

If you’re wondering why WUTV simply couldn’t move to channel 32, keeping WNLO on channel 36, you’re not alone.

Sinclair and Nexstar in October submitted a petition for rulemaking that would amend the table of allotments so that WNLO would take channel 36 and WUTV would take channel 32.

With WUTV scheduled to complete its transition by August 2, time is ticking.

Six months after the petition was filed, and roughly three months before the WUTV transition must take place, the FCC issued an NPRM seeking public comment on the companies’ proposal.

This is likely tied to the companies’ joint request a waiver of the Media Bureau’s current freeze on the filing and processing of petitions for digital channel substitutions and minor modification applications for changes to existing television service areas that would increase a full power television station’s noise limited contour.

The Comment Date for the NPRM — MB Docket No. 19-118 — is 15 days after publication in the Federal Register. The Reply Comment Date is 25 days after publication in the Register.

Here’s the background on why Sinclair and Nexstar are making the request.

WIVB relinquished its broadcast spectrum in Auction 1000, collecting $46,015,135 in the process. On April 16, 2018, it entered into a channel-sharing agreement with WNLO, using facilities on digital channel 32.

However, Nexstar says it is unable to modify WNLO’s channel 32 technical facilities, as they were not changed in the repacking process.

The remedy: WUTV would continue to operate from its existing pre-auction location and WNLO would move the Nexstar-shared facilities to the site previously vacated by WIVB.

This, Nexstar says, would “resolve significant over-the-air reception problems in WIVB’s prior service area.”

Sounds simple, right? Nope. The Commission instituted a freeze on the acceptance of rulemaking petitions by full power television stations requesting channel substitutions in May 2011, and a freeze on the filing of modification applications by full power and Class A television stations that would increase a station’s noise-limited or protected contour beyond the station’s currently licensed or authorized facility in April 2013.

The Media Bureau reimposed the freeze on channel substitutions because the Commission had released the National Broadband Plan recommending, among other things, initiating a rulemaking proceeding to reallocate spectrum from the broadcast television bands and consider methodologies for repacking television channels to make spectrum available for new mobile, fixed, and unlicensed broadband services. Thus, the Media Bureau deemed it appropriate to freeze acceptance of additional rulemaking petitions to change channels to permit the Commission to evaluate reallocation and repacking proposals.

In a April 2013 Freeze Public Notice, the Bureau explained that the freeze was necessary to
create a stable database of full power and Class A facilities that would allow for the development and analysis of potential repacking methodologies to be used in connection with the Incentive Auction authorized by the Spectrum Act; and avoid further expansion of broadcast television stations’ use of spectrum.

What does the Media Bureau have to say?

“A waiver of the channel substitution freeze and contour extension freeze would serve the public interest because the underlying purpose of the freeze is not implicated,” Media Bureau Video Division Chief Barbara Kreisman writes.

Of course, this being Washington, a quick change can’t be done, and now the public can weigh in on the matter — once the Federal Register officially releases what Kreisman’s office distributed via the FCC on Tuesday.