Commission moves to downgrade primary Class A stations to more vulnerable secondary LPTV status.

With the spectrum auction legislation now in effect, the FCC is turning to the task of clearing TV spectrum for wireless broadband.  As we all know, that will involve some shuffling, since full power and Class A television stations have rights as primary spectrum licensees and must therefore be accommodated somewhere on the band. 

But the auction legislation specifically recites that it does not change the status of Low Power Television stations,which presumably continues their secondary status. That gives the Commission a lot more flexibility in dealing with LPTVs because it does not have to take LPTVs into account when it plays chess with full power and Class A channel assignments.  While LPTVs will likely be given an opportunity to find, and file for, some alternate channel, they may need good luck to find one in the anticipated cramped condition of the post-repurposing TV band.

So, from the Commission’s perspective, the chore of repacking existing stations would probably be much easier if Class A stations could be downgraded to LPTV status.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way: the downgrading effort has begun.

Last year, the FCC started checking its own files to see whether Class A stations had been filing their quarterly Children’s TV Reports (FCC Form 398).  Licensees who hadn’t filed their reports received inquiry letters from the Commission in March, 2011. Follow-up inquiries to licensees who didn’t respond to the March letter were sent in August.  Now the FCC has proposed to revoke the Class A status of 16 stations that neither responded to the FCC letters nor filed their Children’s TV Reports. (Here’s a link to one of the 16 “Orders to Show Cause” issued; the other 15 are essentially identical to this one.)  If the threatened downgrades are implemented, the stations won’t be shut down, but will be downgraded to LPTV status. That may or may not end up as a one-way ticket to the gallows in light of the fact, noted above, that a downgrade to LPTV status could ultimately cause the LPTV to become a station without a channel as a result of the spectrum repurposing effort.

At least some Class A stations who received the Commission’s inquiries did respond and did bring their Children’s TV Reports up to date. As far as we know, involuntary downgrades have not as yet been proposed in any of those situations, but the 16 stations singled out so far may just be the beginning of a larger band-clearing initiative by the Commission.

Experienced FCC licensees know that it is never a good idea to ignore an inquiry from the agency.  And of course, failure to file required reports is inviting trouble.  Class A stations should be careful to do their paperwork within 10 days after the end of each quarter: 

  1. File a Children’s TV Report on Form 398 on the FCC’s website, with a paper copy in the station’s public file. 
  2. Place a list of significant community issues and responsive programs in the public file.
  3. Place in the public file records sufficient to demonstrate compliance with limits on commercial matter in children’s programs.  

Class A stations must also place in their public file sufficient documentation to demonstrate compliance with the requirement that they broadcast 18 hours a day (including at least three hours of locally produced programming per week), although there is no specific requirement to renew this documentation every calendar quarter.

Class A licensees derive important regulatory benefits from their status – the additional measure of protection accorded them in the spectrum auction law may be the most important such benefit. It is only a matter of common sense that routine steps – including regular filing of required reports – should be taken diligently to protect those benefits.