Television Transmission Technology

Television translators are broadcast devices that receive a distant station's signal from over the air, automatically convert the frequency, and re-transmit the signal locally on a separate channel. Until 1980, the operators of these devices were required solely to rebroadcast the program service of a licensed full service TV station, and were banned from originating all but 60 seconds per hour for fundraising inserts. In 1980 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that it would accept applications to waive the 60-second cap, so that translators could broadcast original programs--to an unlimited extent--from any suitable source. This liberalization was made permanent in 1982, with the creation of a new broadcast service, low power television, called LPTV.

The name derives from the fact that LPTV stations, like the TV translators that continue to operate, cannot employ transmitter powers in excess of 1,000 watts. This imposes a practical ceiling on the effective radiated power, using a high-gain antenna, of 20 kilowatts or so under ideal conditions. It contrasts with regular full service TV operations, that are permitted up to 100 kilowatts of effective power (Channels 2 to 6), 316 kilowatts (Channels 7 to 13), or 5,000 kilowatts in the UHF bands (Channels 14 to 69). As of the end of 1995, the FCC had licensed 1,787 LPTV stations, with 1,224 operating at UHF, the remainder at VHF. The total number of LPTV's exceeds the number of licensed full service TV stations in the United States--some 1,180 commercial and 363 noncommercial stations, or 1,543 total.

Prior to the official launch of LPTV services, the FCC had granted waivers to permit origination of programs in several instances, notably for rural educational programming in Upstate New York, and for the satellite-fed bush stations in Alaska, where there was no practical alternative for delivering television programming to isolated villages. The first low power television station was constructed in 1981 by John W. Boler in Bemidji, Minnesota. Boler had been a pioneer broadcaster in Fargo, North Dakota, and built the Bemidji facility as a smaller version of a traditional independent TV station, with regular evening news, studios, a sales force, and even a mobile van.

LPTV service expanded just as the equipment manufacturers were introducing significant cost and feature improvements for all broadcast components. It became possible for a crew of one to record programs with a camcorder on inexpensive S-VHS cassette and use them to offer a watchable broadcast picture. Satellite services also expanded, giving LPTV operators a choice of program fare from new networks.

Mark J. Banks, a professor at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, performed mail and telephone surveys of low power television stations in 1988, 1990, and 1994. In the most recent survey, his sample of 456 stations yielded completed interviews with only 129, but the results are somewhat informative. Seventy-one per cent of the LPTV stations were commercial, 17% public or educational, 10% religious, and 2% operated on a scrambled, subscription basis. A plurality, 40%, were in rural areas, but almost as many, 37% were urban, with the remainder suburban or a mixture. The largest "group owners" are Alaska Public Broadcasting and Trinity Broadcasting Network. LPTV was designed to favor minority ownership, but only 8% described themselves as minority controlled. The Mark J. Banks surveys over time indicated reduced dependency on satellite-fed program services, in favor of increased local programming. Stations reporting use of satellite services dropped from 87% in 1988 to 55% in 1994. Conversely, the amount of station time devoted to local programming has grown. The 63% reporting local programming said their most popular categories were, in order: sports, news, talk, community events, public affairs, and children's programs. Locally originating stations derive their greatest revenue by far from the sale of local advertising, and total revenue is up, to an average of $240,000 per station per year.

Low power television has achieved a solid niche, providing new services to rural areas that cannot support full service TV, and to ethnic and religious groupings in large urban areas. The full service TV broadcasters, commercial and noncommercial, opposed LPTV from its inception, and sooner or later may succeed in eradicating it. The FCC no longer assigns any priority to assuring program delivery to underserved audiences and, as of the end of 1995, the agency had made no provision for LPTV in the future change-over to some form of advanced, digitized TV system.

-Michael Couzens



Banks, Mark, J. "A Survey of Low Power Television." Community Television Business (Butler, Wisconsin), Part 1, 19 December 1994; Part 2, 16 January 1995; Part 3, 30 January 1995; Part 4, 13 February 1995.

Biel, Jacquelyn. Low Power Television: Development and Current Status of the LPTV Industry. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Broadcasters, 1985.

Coe, Steve. "Nielsen to Measure LPTV's." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 13 November 1995.

Federal Communications Commission. Report and Recommendations In The Low Power Television Inquiry (BC Docket No. 78-153). Washington, D.C., 9 September 1980.

"New Low Power Lobby Formed." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 6 August 1984.


See also Microwave