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New Year, Same Old Carriage Clash

Jessica Rosenworcel of the FCC
Acting FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel has said the transition to ATSC 3.0 shouldn’t leave viewers worse off than before. (Image credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

 A new Federal Communications Commission took over on Jan. 20 and is already being pressed to resolve an issue that has been percolating for several years: How to give broadcasters the best chance of leveraging the new ATSC 3.0 broadcast transmission technology while making sure MVPDs are not disadvantaged in the process.

Those on both sides of the issue have been pressing their case with FCC staffers over the past few weeks.

In 2017, when the FCC first voted to advance the new broadcast standard, commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who became acting chair on Jan. 20, said: “[W]e had better make sure that the high-definition signals we are now accustomed to when we watch a football game or our favorite film are not downgraded to standard definition in order to ensure broadcasters experimenting with ATSC 3.0 can simulcast two signals — one of which we can’t even see.”

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Her bottom line: “The next transition should leave no viewer worse off, and leave all of us better off.” 

That consumer/viewer focus is expected to carry over, regardless who is named chair of the new commission.

Driving the push for resolution of the issue is a broadcaster petition, backed by both commercial and noncommercial (public) broadcasters.

The National Association of Broadcasters, in a petition for declaratory rulemaking filed in November, asked the FCC to declare that various multi-station arrangements for hosting and originating multicast streams in ATSC 1.0 and 3.0 are OK. The NAB has not asked the FCC to extend carriage rights to multicast streams, which are not subject to mandatory cable carriage. But the petition does say the FCC should exempt the new arrangements from broadcast-ownership rules, something to which pay TV distributors object.

Noncommercial broadcasters weighed in supporting the NAB petition, saying “clarifications” over the ATSC 3.0 rollout are needed, or the uncertainty would “hamper full [public TV] participation in Next Generation broadcasting and could prevent [public TV] stations from achieving all the public-interest benefits of ATSC 3.0.” Broadcasters refer to ATSC 3.0 as NextGen TV.

America’s Public Television Stations and the Public Broadcasting System told the FCC that public stations should not have to choose between continuing to broadcast their existing multicast streams and participating in the key new deployments of NextGen TV broadcasting.

While broadcasters are pressing the FCC to make a decision so they have more certainty about how they can roll out ATSC 3.0, MVPDs are arguing for a slower roll so the FCC can vet issues they argue remain unclear. 

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“If the commission chooses to move forward [with the NAB proposal], the commission should instead issue a Notice of Inquiry rather than a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” the American Television Alliance, a distributor group, told the FCC in comments on the petition. “This would give NAB a chance to better articulate its proposal.”

Gray Television, which is in the Pearl TV consortium of NextGen TV backers, said there needs to be regulatory parity between broadcasters continuing to broadcast in ATSC 1.0 and those moving to 3.0. Gray powered up its first ATSC 3.0 station in January.

“ATSC 3.0 host stations could be at a disadvantage if they do not transition all of their legacy ATSC 1.0 streams to the new standard,” Gray told the FCC. 

The solution, it said, is the NAB’s clarification that “whatever programming an ATSC 3.0 station transmits through its ATSC 1.0 partner(s) — even if not simulcast — is covered by the ATSC 3.0 station’s license.”

Rather than provide clarification and clarity, ATVA said the NAB petition muddies the waters. “[W]e are not sure that we fully grasp the parameters of NAB’s proposed rulemaking,” ATVA told the FCC. “We remain uncertain as to exactly what sort of arrangements and combinations NAB is asking the FCC to bless and cannot identify the public interest justification behind any such arrangements and combinations.”

Skirting Ownership Rules

ATVA does appear to grasp one possible outcome — broadcaster control of multiple stations in a market despite local ownership rules. The consortium said NAB’s proposal would appear to give a single station the ability to control “many multiples of its assigned 6 MHz bandwidth … regardless of local ownership limitations,” up to and including controlling “the spectrum and programming of as many other stations in the market as it would like, creating Big Four duopolies, triopolies, and even quadropolies”  without having to seek FCC approval, it said.

ATVA said that would mean consolidated retransmission negotiations and higher fees that would ultimately be passed on to consumers.

ATVA has pushed to close what it sees as existing loopholes in the local ownership rules, and is certainly not looking for the FCC to create any ATSC 3.0-related new ones.

Granting NAB’s petition would disincentivize broadcast services in favor of ancillary ones “by allowing a station the benefit of both additional 1.0 spectrum for programming and the ability to use most of its 3.0 spectrum for other services,” ATVA also argued. 

The NAB is telling the commission that broadcasters will continue to place the “highest priority” on preserving over-the-air delivery of stations’ primary channels “to the maximum extent possible.”

But broadcasters also stress the need to “highlight” new features of ATSC 3.0, including interactivity and data delivery — so-called broadcast internet. Doing both will require stations to be creative, a creativity they argue their petition will further.