FCC: The Good Dog

If ever you doubted that the FCC has become a complaisant lapdog — without a tooth to the muzzle — you have only to look at the latest doings of radio conglomerates in the wacky world of translators. The big guns (i.e., the Cheap Channels et al.) are limited by law from owning more than a certain number of stations in a market to prevent too much media consolidation, perish the thought.

Enter the translator, which does double duty for the radio pork that feels constrained by the rules: Not only does it allow them to broadcast an entirely new channel over an overloaded market; it also holds hope for them of somehow monetizing HD radio, the much-sought-after Return on Investment. And you thought that maybe now the FCC was concerning itself with low-power FM stations and what is best for the community.

HD, all but moribund on the AM side, has struggled mightily to gain any kind of listen on the FM side, witness this posting from the heartland on the Kansas City Star website:

And then there were those clever utilizations of HD Radio and FM translators to circumvent the federal limit on full-power stations in a market. (HD Radio — which I sometimes wonder if anyone besides me listens to — is a brand name that refers to a technology broadcasters use to air higher-fidelity sound and subchannels on an adjacent signal that can only be picked up by HD Radio equipped radios.

Of note in this post is the characterizing of translator use as “clever” (and the recognition in the hinterlands of the ploy), as well as the inane echo of the bogus claim that HD is somehow “higher-fidelity sound.” Now however did the writer get that idea?
None of this is lost, of course, on the radio heads on the Radio-Info.com discussion board, where this topic, “A Trend Which May Help HD Radio Become Profitable,” shows that none of this is lost on them:

Savage: It’s important to note that any quantifiable “success” has nothing whatsoever to do with “HD Radio” as a digital transmission standard. The measurable audience and resultant revenue comes from people listening on good old FM radios to good old proven, reliable, non-proprietary ANALOG FM radio.

The FM HD subs exist solely as a pretense to justify the launch of new analog translator channels. And then there’s the additional convenience of allowing big groups to evade their market ownership caps.

It’s a win-win-win for the big radio groups who own the FCC and the NAB and tell them what to do.

And when one poses the obvious question — why have the expensive HD main channel at all then? — comes the answer:

KeithE4: Because translators aren’t allowed originate programming, but they can legally rebroadcast AM stations and HD subchannels.

spunker88: It’s a loophole that broadcasters are taking advantage of. If they were allowed to keep the HD subchannels going only on analog translators, I’m sure many would shut off the HD radio signal all together. The fact that they would rather broadcast to a flea powered FM translator than an HD subchannel on a full powered station shows that this technology is not working.

This loophole is being used by some companies so they can have more stations than allowed in a market, since translators don’t count as a unique station. It’s also how some AM stations are getting an analog FM translator.

It’s in Ibiquity’s best interest to allow this to happen, as many stations would probably drop HD if they weren’t allowed to use it as a gateway for analog translators.

mmnassour: So, after all the money….and all the time…and all the promotion…and all the interference….

….we’re saying all HD is good for is a loophole?   Shocked

That kind of ends the debate.

Chuck: Kind of ironic, isn’t it? And a translator can be constructed for pocket change. Unless you have to build a tower, the equipment cost is usually under $10,000. Sometimes way under $10,000. If the FCC allowed translators to rebroadcast FMeXtra [a cheaper, less-encumbered form of digital abandoned in the headlong run to IBOC], you could save even more….

Savage: I don’t know how “wasteful” this is, but it certainly makes a mockery of the FM translator rules, to say nothing of providing legal cover for evasion of ownership caps. A “translator” is supposed to rebroadcast a primary STATION for the purpose of correcting coverage deficits. I think it’s more than a stretch to treat an FM-HD subchannel as if it’s a standalone station.

But, as previously observed — they’re the FCC. They can do whatever they want. As long as they check with CBS and Clear Channel first.

Zach: Yes but… is it cheaper for a station to install and license HD for the sole purpose of using a translator, or just acquiring a dying 1 kW AM to relay?  I think the AM might be cheaper. Wink

Savage: An excellent point, Zach…. plus notwithstanding the fact that the good-as-dead AM likely has few listeners, it still probably has more than would listen to an HD-FM “primary” subchannel. And: no ongoing annual licensing fees!

Now here’s a question I haven’t seen discussed anywhere. iBiquity demands that its licensees pay annual fees based upon revenue generated on the FM-HD subs. If the revenue comes solely from operation of the analog FM translator, does that qualify under iBiquity’s license as “HD revenue”?

Might we smell some potential litigation brewing over this translator-related matter?

KB10KL: I wonder if the FCC is going to continue to play dead and ignore these flagrant rule violations of the ownership cap?

That answer would seem to be self-evident, as every week more examples of this rule-bending appear in Tom Taylor’s newsletter, as in Friday’s edition.

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One Response

  1. “FM Analog Translator Can Rebroadcast FM Digital Multicast Programming – Opportunities for New Signals in Local Markets”

    http://www.broadcastlawblog.com/2010/05/articles/fm-translators-and-lpfm/fm-analog-translator-can-rebroadcast-fm-digital-multicast-programming-opportunities-for-new-signals-in-local-markets/

    This is David Oxenford’s take on translators. To my horror, I actually saw him leave a comment on a post by Peter Jacobs about HD Radio. Evidently, David is a cheerleader for HD Radio.

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