Joe L. Allbritton, already the owner of a highly profitable and top-rated television station in Washington, now wants to operate another station in the District--primarily to broadcast more minority, educational and local shows than his ABC-network-affiliated station carries.
Leo M. Bernstein, chairman of Security National Bank, is also seeking government permission to run a small television station here. Bernstein wants to broadcast a wide variety of cultural events, plus "live news on the hour at the hour--we'll be there when the fire alarm goes off," he says excitedly as he talks about his ideas for his first television station.
Marquee Television Network Inc., which offers pay television to thousands of area residents, is also seeking a small low-powered television station so it can bring its service to many parts of the city that cannot receive its signals now.
Allbritton, Bernstein and Marquee are just three of three dozen applicants who want to offer a brand new type of television service to the Washington area--even though its success is still a big question mark.
Low-power television--the first new broadcasting service approved by the Federal Communications Commission in 20 years--was created as part of the FCC's campaign to give viewers greater program variety and an alternative to the three commercial networks--ABC, CBS and NBC.
The FCC hopes the new service will bring more television to rural areas and more specialized programming--such as shows geared to the elderly and minorities--to cities.
Under the FCC's rules, low-power stations will be able to operate on any unused VHF or UHF stations (channels 2 through 69) as long as they do not interfere with any full-power stations. Transmitters can operate at no more than 10 watts for VHF stations (channels 2 through 13) and no more than 1,000 watts for UHF stations (channels 14 through 69). As a result, the low-power stations will be broadcasting over a 10-to-15 mile radius, compared with the 60-mile radius of full-power stations.
Until last March, the FCC had granted low-power stations permission to operate only on an experimental basis. Washington has one such station--channel 56, which is operated by the Spanish International Network and offers Spanish programs 24 hours a day.
Wanting to make the service more widespread, the FCC decided to make its experimental policies permanent--a move that immediately prompted thousands of applications from large corporations, a wide variety of public interest groups and hundreds of individuals around the country eager to enter the broadcasting industry.
Many broadcasting experts say that low-power stations may not be profitable, or even viable, in large urban areas, such as Washington, where viewers already have a wide selection of stations to choose from and will get many more as cable television comes to the area. onetheless, applications for low-power stations in Washington began piling up at the Federal Communications Commission as early as 1980, despite the fact that it may be years before the commission is likely to approve any station permit for this area. And dozens more are expected once the FCC begins processing applications for large metropolitan cities.
Inundated by 5,000 requests for low-power stations more than a year before it formally approved the service in March 1982, the FCC has announced that the large urban areas will be the last to receive the new service. Rural areas where there are fewer than two full-service stations will receive top priority. Second priority will be granted to the smaller cities that are not saturated with stations.
Given the large number of applications to be processed--and, as yet, no computer to process them--FCC officials don't expect to begin considering applications for the Washington area until 1985 at the earliest.
Add to that the problems the FCC may have in trying to select station owners from the large number of applicants, and FCC officials predict Washingtonians will not see any low-power station until 1987.
"There are so many competing applications, it will take forever to process and compare--even if the commission ends up holding a lottery to select the licensees," says Molly Pauker, legal assistant to the FCC's chief of the broadcast bureau.
By that time, cautions FCC Commissioner Mimi Weyforth Dawson, there may be few, if any, television frequencies left for stations in this area. "By the time we get to urban areas, there will be great engineering questions about whether we will be able to fit low-power television into major metropolitan areas. The airwaves are terribly crowded now, and it will take a lot of work and effort to squeeze in more," she says.
Many broadcasting experts say that it will be difficult to squeeze in more than four new stations, if that many.
These pessimistic predictions have not deterred companies and individuals from applying for low-power service here, however.
"Washington is probably the most desirable market one could find for a low-power station geared to a black market," says James L. Winston, vice president of Community Television Network Inc., a company founded by three former FCC officials in an attempt to create a nationwide black television network.
"We're in the television business and we want to keep our options open," says Steven Wechsler, executive vice president of Marquee. "Low power gives us another transmission source and will allow us to provide local programming during the day, which will give us better status in the community."
"We're broadcasters now," says Carol D. Myers, program manager for Allbritton Communications Co.'s WJLA-TV here. "We want an opportunity to be narrowcasters, to explore in depth a lot of subjects we now don't have time to get into."
Other applicants in the Washington area range from Frederic Bruce Poneman, who promises not to broadcast "violence or negative news which has a deleterious effect on the community," to the United Auto Workers, which wants to broadcast work-place and community issues, to well-established broadcasting giants such as the National Broadcasting Co. Inc., which is seeking a low-power station to "supplement or enhance the programming already available in the community."
Also applying is Federal Express Corp., the air-freight company, which is proposing a novel use of the airwaves: movies and entertainment programs during the evening to the general public; business data, such as stock quotations, to paying customers during the day.
What is low-power's attraction? For one thing, the FCC is permitting these stations to go on the air with none of the programming restrictions full-power stations face, such as complying with political equal time rules.
But more significant, these stations can be started for a far smaller sum than any full-power station--anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000, compared with $1 million or more for a conventional station.
Coupled with the high profitability of many broadcasting stations, the low costs are attracting many individuals to the low-power service.
"Everyone sees themselves as becoming small LBJs" says one broadcasting lawyer, referring to former president Lyndon Baines Johnson, who made his fortune from broadcasting properties.
"We're applying for everything--cable, broadcast, common carrier," says Early D. Monroe Jr., president of HLD&M Communications, which is seeking permission to operate a station to provide locally originated programs to District residents. "The company was formulated for the purpose of acquiring telecommunications properties. Low power is the first piece we could go after inexpensively," he says.
John L. Gibson, president of Sunburst Television Corp., agrees: "Low power affords a relatively inexpensive way to get into the television medium." Sunburst, which is 49 percent owned by a New York production company, seeks to offer pay television at night and local programming in the day--an area ignored by the "media in this city," Gibson says.
Although it may be relatively inexpensive to enter the business, many communications expert say it will be quite costly--and perhaps impossible--to stay in the business here in Washington.
"There is an extremely good return to be made in low power--but not in urban areas where applicants will have to beat their heads against the wall for years before they even know if they are going to get a station," says Michael Couzens. Having headed the FCC's efforts to develop rules for the new service, he left the agency to head The Television Center, a communications consulting firm that, among other things, advises dozens of clients on where to apply for low-power stations.
"Even if an applicant is lucky enough to get a station here and get on the air, they will then have a long difficult process to attract people's attention to develop an audience in a city that already has 10 television stations," Couzens adds. ome applicants are realistic about these prospects.
"I'm not in it to make money," says Gibson of Sunburst. "It's not as much as business to me, but more a media for building local interests."
Leo Bernstein agrees. "I don't believe a low power station can make money and still do a good job," especially if a station is providing up-to-the-minute live local news coverage.
That is why Bernstein says he is not seeking a station for profit. He says he wants the station to return to the city all that it has given him. "I want to give something back now, as I live, instead of something as a monument to the dead."
Several other applicants doubt they will succeed in getting a license to operate, given the large number of competitors and the FCC rules that give priority to minority owned firms and companies that don't already own broadcasting properties.
Considering those rules, an attorney for NBC acknowledges that "it may be difficult for NBC to obtain a grant."
Similarly, Marquee's Wechsler confesses, "I don't think anything is going to happen with this. But when you're in business you should take the risks. If the opportunity strikes, we'll be lucky--and we'll do an excellent job."