In a recently released Third Report and Order, the FCC has revised its Next Generation Broadcast Television (ATSC 3.0 or Next Gen TV) rules to enhance the transition from the current TV technology (ATSC 1.0). Among other things, the Order allows a Next Gen TV station to modify its license to include certain non-primary video programming streams (multicast streams) that are aired on “host” stations during a transitional period. The Order also extends until at least July 17, 2027, the requirement that the programming on a station’s ATSC 1.0 channel be “substantially similar’ to the programming on its ATSC 3.0 channel. The FCC states that these actions are designed to minimize viewer disruption as much as possible during the industry-wide transition to ATSC 3.0.
In 2017, the FCC authorized television broadcasters to use the ATSC 3.0 transmission standard on a voluntary, market-driven basis. The FCC required that broadcasters voluntarily deploying the ATSC 3.0 service must, with very limited exceptions, continue to air at least their primary streams using the current-generation TV transmission standard, ATSC 1.0, to their viewers through “local simulcasting.” Because a TV station cannot simultaneously broadcast in both 1.0 and 3.0 formats from the same facility and on the same channel, simulcasting requires a partnership between the Next Gen TV station and another broadcaster in the local market (i.e., a temporary “host” station). The partnership involves either: (1) airing an ATSC 3.0 channel at the temporary host’s facility, while using its original facility to continue to provide an ATSC 1.0 simulcast channel, or (2) airing an ATSC 1.0 simulcast channel at the temporary host’s facility, while converting its original facility to the ATSC 3.0 standard in order to provide a 3.0 channel.
In 2017, the FCC adopted the requirement that a Next Gen TV station’s ATSC 1.0 simulcast must be “substantially similar” to that of the primary video programming stream on the ATSC 3.0 channel; i.e., the programming must be the same except for advertisements, promotions for upcoming programs, and programming features that are based on the enhanced capabilities of ATSC 3.0. In the recent Order, the FCC stated that this approach, which this Order retains, seeks to “ensure that viewers do not lose access to the broadcast programming they receive today, while still providing flexibility for broadcasters to innovate and experiment with new, innovative programming features using Next Gen TV technology.” The FCC previously decided, however, that the substantially-similar requirement would expire on July 17, 2023, unless extended, because it “could unnecessarily impede Next Gen TV programming innovations as the deployment of ATSC 3.0 progresses.” Notably, though, the underlying requirement that a Next Gen TV station simulcast in the ATSC 1.0 format does not currently have a sunset date.
The FCC’s Order also addresses the fact that existing rules do not address a guest station’s licensing of a host’s spectrum multicasting. Since the adoption of the existing rules, the Media Bureau has implemented an interim process by which a Next Gen TV broadcaster in ATSC 3.0 can seek special temporary authority (STA) to air 1.0 multicast streams on a host station.
The FCC’s Recent Order
In the recent Order, the FCC adopted rules designed to preserve consumer access to multicast programming in 1.0 format during the voluntary ATSC 3.0 transition. The rules are intended to provide the industry with “regulatory certainty about the legal treatment of licensed multicast streams; clarify that the originating station (and not the host station) is responsible for regulatory compliance regarding a multicast stream being aired on a host station; give the FCC clear enforcement authority over the originating station in the event of a rule violation on the hosted multicast programming stream; and facilitate NCE stations’ 3.0 deployment by allowing them to serve as hosts to commercial stations’ multicast streams.”
The main provisions of the Order are as follows:
- Simulcast Multicast Streams. Next Gen TV stations may now modify their licenses to include simulcast multicast streams on one or more host stations, whether that guest stream is a 1.0 or 3.0 simulcast (“simulcast” multicast streams). Any simulcast streams must be “substantially similar” in 1.0 and 3.0 formats. That is, the 1.0 multicast must be paired, one to one, with an identified 3.0 multicast stream. Notably, the Order allows NCE stations to host commercial multicast streams, without violating Section 399B of the Communications Act.
- Non-Simulcast 1.0 Multicast Streams. Next Gen TV stations broadcasting in 3.0 may modify their licenses to include one or more multicast streams on one or more host stations in the 1.0 format, even if they are not simulcasting that stream in 3.0 (“non-simulcast” 1.0 multicast streams). That is, a Next Gen TV station broadcasting in 3.0 on its own channel may modify its license to include one or more 1.0 multicast streams aired on a 1.0 host or hosts, even when it is not simulcasting that multicast stream on a paired stream in a 3.0 format. To permit the licensing of multicast streams on a host, each of the originating station’s guest multicast streams will be licensed as a temporary channel on the host.
- Limits on Licensing of Host Capacity. The FCC limits the number of 1.0 guest streams that may be included in a single Next Gen TV’s license to those it would have the capacity to transmit in 1.0. The goal here is to ensure that a Next Gen TV broadcaster does not use the interim flexibility of the new rules to aggregate capacity beyond that which is legally permissible today. A Next Gen TV station must demonstrate compliance with this rule by either: (1) showing that it is seeks hosting only for streams it was broadcasting on its own 1.0 facility prior to its transition to 3.0; or (2) by providing an example of another 1.0 station that has carried or is carrying a similar programming lineup to that which it seeks to provide on hosts at the same resolution.
- Use of Multicast Streams to Minimize 1.0 Primary Stream Service Loss. The FCC will allow, in certain circumstances, a Next Gen TV station to simulcast its primary stream programming both on its primary stream host and on a multicast stream carried by a different partner station, in order to minimize the impact of 1.0 primary service loss that would result if the originating station could only air its primary stream on a single host. This appears to primarily address the situation where streams are aired on LPTV 1.0 hosts. The Order suggests, though, that this relief will not be routinely granted.
- Ownership. The FCC extended the “ownership waiver” that applies in the primary stream context to ensure that hosted multicast streams do not implicate the FCC’s broadcaster attribution rules, while reiterating that any changes in the rules governing multicast streams will apply equally to hosted multicast streams.
- Extension of Sunset of “Substantially Similar” Rule. The Order extends to at least July 17, 2027 the sunset date of the requirement that the programming on a station’s ATSC 1.0 channel be “substantially similar’ to the programming on its ATSC 3.0 channel. This is intended to protect consumers by ensuring that over-the-air viewers who rely on 1.0 are able to continue watching the same programming, as well as any new programming offerings on a broadcaster’s primary channel that can be reasonably provided in the 1.0 format.
- Extension of the Requirement to Comply with the ATSC A/322 Tech Standard. In the First Next Gen TV Report and Order, the FCC required compliance with only two parts of the ATSC 3.0 suite of standards: (1) ATSC A/321:2016 “System Discovery & Signaling” (A/321), which is the standard used to communicate the RF signal type that the ATSC 3.0 signal will use; and (2) A/322:2016 “Physical Layer Protocol” (A/322), which is the standard that defines the waveforms that ATSC 3.0 signals may take. The FCC, however, decided that it was not appropriate at the time “to require broadcasters to adhere to A/322 indefinitely,” since “the ATSC 3.0 standard could evolve, and stagnant FCC rules could prevent broadcasters from taking advantage of that evolution.” The FCC therefore determined that the requirement to comply with the A/322 standard would expire on March 6, 2023, absent Commission action to extend it. The most recent Order retains the A/322 requirement at this time and extends the sunset date to July 17, 2027, based on the finding that “the A/322 requirement remains essential at this time for protecting both innovators and investors in the 3.0 space, allowing stakeholders to develop and purchase equipment with confidence.”
All of the multicasting licensing rules will apply until the FCC eliminates the mandatory local simulcasting requirement.
If you have any questions about the FCC’s new Next Gen TV multicasting rules, please contact us.