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FCC Majority Votes To Approve Amended Low-Power Item

According to sources, a majority of FCC commissioners have voted for a low-power TV item that has been the source of extreme friction between the chairman and the other FCC members.

At press time Democrats Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps and Republican Robert McDowell had voted to approve the item as amended to reflect their concerns, a change that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said earlier in the day would provide "nothing" for low-power stations.

Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate’s office had not returned a call for comment, but she was expected to vote for the amended proposal as well.

A Martin spokesman says the chairman will continue to push for the item as originally proposed.

According to a source familiar with the draft, the item as voted would:

Establish rules allowing low-power TV stations to apply for second channels during their switch to digital.

It would also propose a 2012 hard date for that switch--currently there is no hard date. But it would also seek comment on that proposal.

The third element would open an inquiry into various ways to boost carriage of low-power TV stations by multichannel video providers after the switch to digital, including granting Class A low powers (there are over 500) must-carry status on cable, as well as potentially allowing other low-powers to qualify for carriage on public, access and government (PEG) cable channels and on DBS set-asides currently reserved for non-commercials.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wanted to make the carriage issues part of a proposal, rather than an inquiry. That would have set the stage for cable must-carry for Class A stations. He said that low-power TV backers indicated carriage needed to be a proposal. Last week, the Community Broadcasters Association suggested that they could accept a hard date, but only if carriage came along as part of the deal.

But the other four commissioners wanted to confine those carriage issues to an inquiry, so they edited the chairman's proposal to put the carriage issues into an NOI (notice of inquiry) so they could seek more information on the impact of the decision on cable capacity and resolve issues about the FCC's authority to grant that must-carry status. They edited the item to

While the item now has a majority supporting it, the votes came with edits that all the commissioners must revote in a new draft. In addition, a source said the chairman could still pull the item before it gets that final vote. "That's the power of the chairman," said source.

"The chairman believes strongly that the most effective way to help low-power stations is to require must-carry rights, and the only way to accomplish that is through a notice of proposed rulemaking, which the other commissioners have failed to vote for," Said FCC spokesman Robert Kenny.

Kenny had no comment on what the chairman's response to the commissioners vote would be beyond pointing out that the proposal the commissioners voted was not the one the chairman had proposed. "What the other commissioners are doing is, in effect, delaying this issue because they will not make a decision to change the rules for the benefit of low power stations," he added. "The other commissioners did not offer support for the proposal, nor did they support an item that low-power stations wanted or would find helpful."