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FCC Looks at Changes to Rules Covering Unattended Operation

Surprising many observers, the FCC used the IBOC proceeding to review some basic regulations for all stations when it published new digital rules.

Surprising many observers, the FCC used the IBOC proceeding to review some basic regulations for all stations when it published new digital rules.

The commission is revisiting the appropriateness of unattended operations for all stations and how that affects the transmission of EAS alerts in connection with its review of public interest requirements for IBOC.

While the FCC now has published basic service rules and fundamental public interest obligations for digital channels, it seeks comment on additional public service obligations in a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. These new obligations could extend beyond the digital channels to affect main analog channels.

If the FCC were to cut back on the number of hours a station may operate unattended — and possibly require 24/7 staffing — the change would apparently affect all stations and could have a large impact on facilities, especially those with undersized staffs in small markets.

In 1987, the commission eliminated a provision of the main studio rule in which stations were required to originate a majority of non-network programming from the main studio. It did so in part based on technical advances in program production and distribution, it said.

In 1995, in response to improvements to monitoring equipment for stations and transmission facilities, the agency authorized unattended operations and expanded the ability of stations to control and monitor station technical operations from remote locations.

Now, the agency is asking whether “changes in remote operation impacted the requirements that the commission should adopt in this area.”

The FCC has an open EAS proceeding and believes asking EAS questions in the digital proceeding is appropriate, although the issues it seeks comment on would apply to all stations.

The commission is taking comment on whether it should revisit the rules allowing unattended operations, and specifically, whether the “widespread reliance on automated operations” limits the ability to distribute EAS alerts effectively.

The commission didn’t mention other possible reasons for opening this topic, such as loss of localism, which some critics say resulted from allowing “automated” stations.

“Although EAS equipment can be programmed to operate automatically in certain circumstances, when a state or local alert is initiated by designated local authorities, initial input of the alert and activation of the originating EAS ENDEC must be done manually. In some emergencies, this initial input does not occur,” the FCC stated.

In a footnote, the FCC referred to two incidents where it states EAS alerts were not activated: the widely reported 2002 train derailment near Minot, N.D., and a train collision in Macdona, Texas, 10 miles from San Antonio.

In the Minot case, Clear Channel has said state emergency personnel did not know how to operate the EAS and did not send the initial message to the primary station to pass on. Clear Channel says it has since trained state personnel on how to operate its EAS equipment.

The question of unattended operation and whether it affects a station’s ability to transmit an alert is separate from the EAS Common Alerting Protocol order the agency announced in May.

The commission will require EAS participants to accept CAP messages after FEMA adopts standards. CAP involves the transmission of EAS alerts as text, audio and video via broadcast, cable, satellite and other networks.

And finally, the commission, which is examining whether requirements for the public inspection file for TV stations are adequate to ensure the public has easy access to the material, is asking the same questions about digital and analog radio stations.

The agency has proposed that TV stations make the contents of their public inspection files available on the Web. The FCC asks whether radio should do the same or if radio rules should be different.

Comments on the Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, FCC 07-33, are due 60 days after Federal Register publication.