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LPTV: the 'cable' to rural America

Don't touch that dial. A new form of televison is about to appear on home screens in small towns around the country. It is called Low Power Television (LPTV), and its supporters claim it has the potential to offer viewers and station owners a whole new range of entertainment choices.

As its name implies, LPTV is low power, with stations generally limited to 10 watts VHF and 1,000 watts UHF.This means they will only broadcast over small geographic areas - less than 15 miles, whereas full-service stations generally can broadcast over 50 miles. With lower power requirements and lower operating costs, LPTV could dramatically increase the number of stations, perhaps adding as many as 4,000 LPTV stations to the 1,100 commercial and educational full-service stations already operating.

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A better idea of the exact number of LPTV stations will be evident soon. On Sept. 29, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began the process of awarding new LPTV licenses. Using a lottery, the commission will hand out 20 licenses every two weeks. Following each award, critics or opponents will have 15 days to file complaints against the licensees.

The FCC approved the concept of LPTV, first proposed in 1978, to accomplish several things: Above all, the FCC wants to encourage the development of broadcast facilities to serve isolated communities more than 55 miles distant from any of the 212 top-ranked television markets. Here, LPTV stations can broadcast their own programs or serve as ''translators'' to boost distant, faint signals of full-service television stations.

The FCC also wants to diversify control of mass media and, in particular, is encouraging applications for LPTV licenses from minorities (defined by the FCC as blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, Eskimos, and Aleuts).

The biggest incentive for potential investors may be the low initial cost of becoming an LPTV station owner. The FCC estimates that low-power stations could be built for as little as $13,000 to $24,000 - compared to the $2 million minimum cost to start up a full-service station - and would cost less than $15, 000 a year to operate. Although many experts say the real costs are higher - $50 ,000 to build and $25,000 to operate - LPTV still stands as a unique opportunity for small groups and individuals to get on the air.

To encourage would-be broadcasters, the FCC has cut through a lot of red tape and has eliminated many of the programming requirements applied to full-service stations.

For example, LPTV has no limits on commercialization, no minimum hours of operation, and no prescribed amounts of nonentertainment programming or local programming. On the ownership side, the FCC has waived its ''one to a market'' rule, which means an individual or corporate owner can own more than one LPTV station - and can do so even if the owner already has another radio station, television station, cable-TV system, or newpaper in the same market area.

There are certain obligations that go with all this freedom on the air. The FCC will not permit LPTV stations to cause interference with existing full-service stations, and they must yield to changes in facilities of full-service stations. However, regarding potential conflicts between cable and LPTV, preference is given on a ''first in time, first in right'' basis.

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There are already about 100 LPTV stations operating on an experimental basis in Alaska, upstate New York, and other remote sites. Although the first LPTV application was granted in 1981, the development of LPTV has been delayed for an unexpected reason: The FCC was swamped with over 12,000 applications for the 4, 000 available stations. This was the reason a lottery system was used.

But critics are already questioning the soundness of the FCC's handling of LPTV. First, they feel LPTV has been oversold as an investment opportunity. Actual start-up costs, they say, far exceed the FCC's original, optimistic estimates, while returns on investments may never be realized in remote low-income markets.

Jerry Eisenberg, director of Engineering Services in the New York Board of Education's Office of Media and Telecommunications (which owns its own FM radio station and a UHF television station), says LPTV may be something of a misnomer. Mr. Eisenberg says that, because the FCC allows LPTV to provide subscription (pay) programming, ''It's nothing more than an extended cable system.''

Other media experts counter that, despite the FCC using LPTV's appeal to owners' vanity, the resulting diversity of ownership in the telcommunications industry is a very positive development. They admit there is a risk LPTV could produce an increase in low-quality broadcasting, overladen with commercials. But , these proponents say, experience in Alaska, upstate New York, Montana, and Wyoming, where approximately 100 interim grants have allowed LPTV stations to operate, has shown the benefits outweigh the risks.

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