FCC 2011: Television gets CALM, spectrum still a target


The FCC’s Fiscal Year 2011 Performance Report is out, and despite the focus on broadband that is a hallmark of the Chairman Julius Genachowski administration, there was quite a bit of action on the television front. In fact, broadband was a big reason for that as the FCC tries to gain authority to conduct incentive auctions of television spectrum after first repacking the channels. But there was more, including work on The CALM Act, a proposal for online public filing and more. Here’s what went down in 2011:

* An important step was taken by the Commission to meet the nation’s demand for innovative wireless broadband services by adopting a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proposing that wireless broadband providers have equal access to television broadcast frequencies that could become available in spectrum auctions. The proposed rules would enable television broadcasters to opt to share channels by further tapping the technical capabilities that became available following the nation’s historic transition to digital television in 2009. In September, the FCC also announced a 45-day public trial of a database system to identify unused television band channels that are available for unlicensed devices. Unused spectrum between TV stations, called white spaces, represents a valuable opportunity for more efficient use of spectrum because it can be used for unlicensed services. Unlicensed services are a powerful platform for innovation and experimental use. The result of innovation on unlicensed services has already led to a wave of new consumer technologies, including Wi-Fi and other innovations like baby monitors and cordless phones that have generated billions of dollars in economic growth.

* A Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) took steps to modernize the way television broadcasters inform the public about how they are serving their communities. The FNPRM proposes that television broadcast licensees convert their paper public files to an online public file to be hosted by the Commission. Online availability of this information will improve the public’s access to information and Commission hosting will reduce the burdens on television broadcasters. An accompanying Notice of Inquiry (NOI) sought comment on a proposed standardized form for reporting by broadcasters of their service to their communities.

* The Commission proposed rules to implement the Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act. Loud commercials on television are a leading source of consumer complaints to the FCC. The Commission proposed a solution that relieves consumers of this problem while limiting costs to TV broadcasters, cable operators and other multichannel video programming distributors.

* In 2010, the FCC initiated a staff-level working group to identify trends and make recommendations on how the information needs of communities can be met in a broadband world. The working group included journalists, entrepreneurs, scholars, and government officials. The group interviewed more than 600 individuals and organizations, collected over 1,000 public comments, reviewed existing research, held multiple hearings, and made site visits to newsrooms across the country. On June 9, 2011, the group issued an in-depth analysis of the current state of the media landscape along with a broad range of recommendations. The staff-level report, titled Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age, found that the Internet has enabled an unprecedented free exchange of ideas and information, empowering individuals with a wealth of new information to better inform decision-making and engender more accountable government. Local news continues to play a vital role, with some stations seizing multiplatform opportunities. Newspapers and television stations have emerged as the largest providers of local news online. Key recommendations in the report included streamlining disclosures about local programming and discouraging “pay-for-play” arrangements in which TV stations allow advertisers to dictate on-air content without informing viewers by requiring online disclosure of such arrangements.

* The Commission looked to promote competition in the video distribution marketplace with the issuance of three Reports and Orders and a Public Notice to implement the new statutory requirements of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA). STELA provides the framework for satellite carriage of local television stations. The Commission’s actions provided satellite subscribers with greater programming choices and improved parity and competition between satellite and cable carriage of broadcast stations. The Commission also proposed rules to improve the procedures for the filing and resolution of carriage complaints filed by video programming vendors.

* While proposed mergers of media or communications firms are becoming commonplace, the FCC conducts thorough reviews of each transaction to ensure that the public interest is protected. In January, the Commission granted approval, with conditions and enforceable commitments, to assignments and transfers of control of broadcast, satellite, and other radio licenses from General Electric (GE) to Comcast. The approval allowed GE and Comcast to create a joint venture involving NBC Universal (NBCU) and Comcast. As part of the merger, Comcast-NBCU is required to take affirmative steps to foster competition in the video marketplace. In addition, Comcast-NBCU committed to increasing local news coverage to viewers; expand children’s programming; enhance the diversity of programming available to Spanish-speaking viewers; offer broadband services to low-income Americans at reduced monthly prices; and provide high-speed broadband to schools, libraries, and underserved communities. The conditions imposed by the Commission address potential harms posed by the combination of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator and Internet service provider, and NBCU which owns broadcast stations and owns and develops valuable television and film content