Rep. Pallone Proposes $1B Boost to Auction Repack Fund

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.)—who has long pushed Congress to hold viewers harmless in the post-incentive auction repack—has introduced a bill to make sure the moving expenses of TV stations (and affected FM stations and MVPDs) are covered, given the initial broadcaster estimates of $2.1 billion in expenses and Congress' set-aside of only $1.75 billion. 

The Viewer Protection Act would establish a $1 billion "emergency fund" if needed and fund a $90 million viewer outreach effort, given that most of a thousand stations are moving channels—some likely twice—in a 10-phase transition. 

Any money left over could be used to help low-power stations (including translators), who are not protected in the repack. 

The bill would also give the FCC's Media Bureau the flexibility to modify the transition periods for the phased transition so stations would not go dark to viewers for reasons outside their control.

“The FCC’s incentive auction was the second largest auction in history, and the result of years of successful work. But with an anticipated shortfall of more than a quarter billion dollars for repacking, it’s time for Congress to step in to make sure that no viewers lose their signal,” said Pallone in a statement. “I understand how important it is to have access to local news and information—especially during an emergency. That’s why the Viewer Protection Act provides additional funding and ensures consumers will understand the coming changes, so that no consumer will be left in the dark when stations change channels.  At the same time, our bill will ensure consumers of mobile broadband reap the benefits of the incentive auction as soon as possible.”

At his nomination hearing this week, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said that the FCC had estimated the $1.75 billion was not going to be enough, so that if Congress wants to hold TV stations harmless—Pallone is more focused on viewers—Congress would need to step in.

"As FCC Chairman Pai made clear during yesterday’s hearing, the Commission’s $1.75 billion fund is simply insufficient to fairly reimburse those broadcasters forced to relocate channels in order to accommodate the incentive auction," said National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith. "Ranking Member Pallone’s legislation addresses this shortfall, and further ensures that millions of TV viewers and radio listeners retain access to local news, weather, sports and emergency weather warnings during and after the "repack. NAB thanks Ranking Member Pallone for his leadership and looks forward to working with him and his colleagues in both parties to ensure a just and reasonable repack process."

"While FCC Chairman Pai stated during yesterday’s Senate hearing, that the Commission’s $1.75 billion fund could well be short hundreds of million in funds which the primary broadcasters will need to relocate channels in order to accommodate the incentive auction, this is the first time members of Congress have been willing to go on the record in support of LPTV and TV translator displacement compensation to move to new channel assignments," said Mike Gravino, director of the LPTV Spectrum Rights Coalition. "Ranking Member Pallone’s legislation to address this shortfall is most welcomed, and more importantly, provides potential funding for displaced LPTV and TV translators. This is especially important for those stations which provide lifeline EAS services to their local communities of license."

"Our Coalition of LPTV and translator owners thanks Ranking Member Pallone for thinking of the tens millions of viewers which watch our small indie stations, and which rely on them for local news, weather alerts, and diverse programming."

According to grateful broadcasters, full power and low power, who noted it in their respective statements of support, original co-sponsors of the bill include  Reps. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Gene Green (D-Tex.), Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), and Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

"I appreciate Ranking Members Pallone’s focus on protecting viewers if final repacking costs exceed the allocated amount while expeditiously putting 600 MHz spectrum to use for mobile broadband," said Competiive Carriers Association President Steven Berry of the bill, though he emphasized that for the sake of consumers, the transition needs to proceed apace.

"Ultimately, this is not about broadcasters or auction participants: it is about consumers. Many competitive carriers invested substantial resources acquiring spectrum in the historic incentive auction so that they can meet consumers’ exploding demands for mobile broadband, and they should be allowed to put that purchased spectrum to use as quickly as possible," said Berry. "A timely repack is critically important to do so. I thank Rep. Pallone for his attention to this important issue and look forward to our continued work with Congress and the FCC to ensure a safe, efficient and expeditious repacking process that puts consumers first.”

"ACA is pleased that this bill introduced by Rep. Pallone makes more money available to the Federal Communications Commission, if needed, to prevent consumers from losing access to broadcast channels as a result of the incentive auction," said American Cable Association President Matt Polka. "ACA is particularly appreciative that the additional funds would be accessible to cable operators too so these providers have the financial support they need to continue offering the broadcast channels to their customers without interruption."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.