Twirling a plexiglass drum loaded with red plastic capsules, Federal Communications Commission officials yesterday picked the winners in the country's first television license lottery.
Lacking the show business flair of "Let's Make a Deal" but with lucrative prizes that even that show's host, Monte Hall, might envy, the Bingo game-like raffle was used to select 23 licensees for low-power television--a popular new wrinkle in the increasingly competitive video marketplace. A crowd of anxious lawyers and nervous applicants alternately cheered and groaned as the winning numbers were announced.
"This was a serious thing," insisted Janis Langley, chief FCC spokeswoman, after monitoring the event. "This was business, not showmanship."
The lottery was authorized by Congress two years ago so the FCC can expedite an avalanche of about 12,000 applications for low-power stations, which use low-watt transmitters to broadcast over a 10- to 15-mile radius, compared with the 60-mile radius of full-power VHF and UHF stations. The mini-stations are cheaper to build than conventional TV stations and, FCC officials hope, will be used to aim programming at particular audiences, such as blacks and Hispanics.
Thus, under FCC rules, minority-owned firms and applicants who controlled no other mass media properties received twice as many chances to win against non-minorities. Numbers were then stuffed into red capsules which were loaded into the cylindrical drum (once used by the Selective Service System for the draft). After a twirl of the drum for each market, Maureen Peratino, chief of the FCC's news media division, reached in and plucked out the winning numbers.
All of yesterday's stations were in sparsely populated rural areas such as Bowesmont, N.D., and Winnemucca, Nev. (Lotteries for major markets, including the District of Columbia, will be held later.) Eight of yesterday's 23 winners were minority firms, but there was plenty for others to cheer about.
"We beat the odds," exulted Ann Ford, a local communications lawyer representing a winning applicant in rural Okanogan, Wash. "We were competing against somebody who claimed to be an American Indian."
For years, communications lawyers have earned their livelihoods by selling their expertise and connections to TV license applicants, charging as much as $100,000 for a standard two-year comparative hearing proceeding. The lottery, replacing the legal process with random selection, is viewed by some lawyers as a threat.
"I'm ambivalent about it," said Ford. "You don't have control. It's really using the odds of luck rather than absolute public interest concern."
There were some signs yesterday that the lawyers, in the end, will find a way to prevail, however. Several lottery losers said they would probably file petitions with the FCC challenging the qualifications of the winners, thus ensuring time-consuming proceedings anyway.
But the commission remains bullish on its raffle. An FCC official said that, given the staggering number of applicants, yesterday's will be the first of "hundreds of lotteries."