ABOUT 2 1/2 years ago, the Federal Communications Commission announced the creation of a "mini" television station service that would allow people of modest resources--who cannot afford the multimillion-dollar prices of "full-service" stations--to own an "electronic printing press." With limited coverage areas, it is hoped that Low Power Television stations will bring new services to rural Americans, while better serving specialized audiences in more urban areas.
Two friends and I formed a partnership to build and operate a station in the central area of our city--San Diego--where cable television refuses to lay lines, and local signals are blocked by terrain.
A few days after that, I pedaled the few blocks to center city to find an edifice that I could top with an antenna. I was firmly turned away by all leasing agents, until one suggested I might have better luck if shoes were part of my apparel. First thing the next morning, freshly shod, I found a somewhat bemused building manager who consented to my request; there was room in the penthouse for a water heater-sized transmitter. So I concentrated on the search for a channel.
As explained in an FCC guideline sheet, an LPTV station could be bumped off the air if a new full-service station moved into a channel near it. So I went to the local law library to copy the U.S.-Mexico treaty covering TV channels, as our site is about 14 miles from the border. Being a native San Diegan, I was familiar with southern California stations, and it was relatively easy to avoid interference with operating or potential stations.
Three weeks later Karl Fackler and I borrowed Dorothy Sobke's car and mailed three copies of our application. The date was Oct. 26, 1980.
When the letter arrived at the FCC's M Street offices, it was only the 51st "interim" application filed for the entire United States. The FCC responded with a post card only, saying we had been "accepted for filing." In the first week of December we were placed on a "cutoff" list with a mid-January expiration. If no other applications were received for our channel in our city by that time, we would be granted permission to build. The speed at which events occurred surprised us; we looked into competing transmitters and priced cameras--it seemed too good to be true. It was.
Under pressure from the broadcasters, the FCC reversed an initial decision and allowed local stations and networks to apply for LPTV stations. Our deadline was extended to mid-February. By the latter date, about 1,200 applications were filed, including five vying for the same channel we were. We were put on a back burner with no heat.
That summer I made my first trip to the District. It didn't help much. At the time, 6,000 applications were on file, and the FCC had stopped accepting new ones in most cities because of the unprecedented deluge. I left Washington after a month, thinking it might be two years before the FCC made a decision. Almost two years later, I now hope it's less than three years in the future.
To make granting applications easier, the commission asked Congress to pass legislation authorizing lotteries to select from among competing applicants rather than use the time-honored and burdensome hearing process. There were so many on file that a computer, which will be operational this month, was needed just to determine which applications would interfere with each other. Barbara Kreisman, chief of the new LPTV branch, says she thinks the computer will allow her staff to dispose of up to half the 12,000 now on file because they would interfere with existing stations. She says the lotteries may be ready sometime this fall.
Like most of those applying for LPTV stations, my partners and I have only been able to dream of owning a broadcast station before now. We view LPTV as a way to make a meaningful contribution to our community, have fun and make money.
We would not follow the typical independent station's fare of reruns, movies and cartoons. Our intent is to turn the "beady eye" of television back upon the city, sometimes as a neutral observer but other times with a point of view. Time would be given to diverse interest groups, broadcasts of city and county government meetings, important court cases, news, old movies and "art" films. We would present programming for prisoners, the elderly, the poor, women and any other group that traditional electronic media ignores.
Commercials would be limited to six minutes hourly but we would make a handy profit even with moderate rates.
If we don't receive Channel 63 in center-city San Diego, there are still other, less desirable, channels to apply for. We would like to own a local network to distribute programs throughout our region to individualized stations. In the meantime, we wait, and prepare legal briefs.