FCC starts setting up procedures to dole out post-DTV transition spectrum

The arrival (at last!!) of the end of the full power DTV transition is having ripple effects beyond the full-service TV industry and its viewing public. Low Power TV and TV translator stations have been hanging fire until the Big Day, waiting for full power stations to give up one of their channels so that the final lay of the full-service digital TV land could be established. The big question has been who can file for what, and when they can file for it.

With that big question in mind, the FCC has issued the first of what we expect to be several public notices setting some ground rules.

The first such public notice affects existing Class A TV, LPTV and TV translator stations.

Those folks have been permitted to file displacement, minor modification and digital “flash-cut” applications at any time. Some such applications have been filed before the transition end, even though they requested channels that can be used only after a full power station moves off of them. Stations filing early have claimed first-in-time priority, while others have cried “foul”, arguing that first-in-time is not fair unless everyone knows the timing rules.

Applicants were further frustrated when the FCC shipped some applications back and denied pleas to hold them and grant them in time to allow operations to start June 13, while it held others in abeyance, letting them keep their early file numbers. Now that the curtain has finally fallen on full power analog TV, the FCC is ready to deal with applications which were blocked by now-abandoned pre-transition operations.

The Commission is concerned about being fair to potential applicants who elected to wait until the transition to file their applications, for fear that they would be deemed unacceptable. So to give everybody an equal chance, the FCC has announced that any Class A, LPTV or TV translator application which was filed prior to the transition and which was blocked by pre-transition full-service facilities will be deemed to have been filed, and cut-off, as of June 30. That means that any other stations in that universe that want to file for displacement channels, minor mods or digital flash-cuts may do so up to June 30, and all will be given equal priority in time against one another and superiority in time over any MX application filed after June 30.

There are lots of unanswered questions about how the announcement will affect other priorities, such as those given to out-of-core displacement applications seeking in-core channels, Class A vs. LPTV, and digital over analog displacement. And that doesn’t even begin to address the question of whether the Commission can, consistently with the Administrative Procedure Act, change its processing priorities contained in Section 73.3572 of the Rules without a formal rule making. But after all, if the first FCC announcement clarified everything, what would we lawyers do to keep busy?