491 TV Stations Want To Keep Feb. 17 DTV Transition Date

Related:The DTV Countdown - Complete Coverage of the DTV Transition

Between a quarter and a third of all TV stations want to go ahead and pull the plug on analog Feb. 17, which could make for what is effectively a staggered start to the DTV era, depending on how many the FCC allows to go on that date.

A total of 491 TV stations have told the FCC they want to make the transition to digital Feb. 17, according to a just-releasedlist from the commission.

Another 190 have already switched or are doing so before Feb. 17.

It is now up to the FCC to let stations know whether they can or not.

Any station the FCC decides can't go early--because it is not in the public interest--will get the news "promptly," says the commission's public notice, but it does not give a date certain for informing stations. It will have to be prompt, since even if the FCC lets them know today (Feb. 10), they have only one week to change their plans.

Congress has passed a bill to extend the hard date to June 12, though the president has yet to sign it, which has some in the media and regulatory camps scratching their heads, since the administration was pushing for quick passage of the bill given the looming deadline.

The FCC has already released the rules implementing the bill (not yet a law), with language that finesses it in case something happened to prevent its signing. That's because the FCC could not wait for the president's signature and meet the deadline.

It had required broadcasters to tell it by midnight Monday whether they wanted to go ahead with the Feb. 17 cut-off of analog the government had mandated before unmandating it last week.

There is no guarantee they will be able to to go early, however, even the 1,000-plus stations the FCC has said could make the move without interfering with other stations.

That is because the FCC has put a public interest caveat on the move, saying they will have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. For example, the FCC would think twice before allowing all the major stations in a market with a high percentage of analog-only wiewers to pull the plug Feb. 17.

The FCC and some members of Congress have urged stations to do their own public interest accounting of the effects of going early, which Feb. 17 now is, and act accordingly.

A number of major groups, including Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC and Gannett stations have said they won't go early, while others have said for economic or scheduling reasons they have to go when the government has been telling them for years they needed to.

"We'll try to work with broadcasters to make this as seemless as possible for everybody," says FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, "but we do need to protect consumers, and part of that is to make sure that there is some analog signal in each market." Some broadcasters may wind up having to stay on even if they don't want to. "That remains to be seen," he said," but hopefully it will all be voluntary."

One broadcast executive surmised that the 491 stations was far higher than the FCC had expected, and predicted that the FCC will be "taking stations to task" over any noncompliance with the details for going early, which include an extremely accelerated and condensed schedule of PSAs and crawls informing viewers of that fact.

The executive noted that there was no way for many stations, including his, to run automated crawls. He said that while having to file the request to go early was not a big cost, he is concerned about the legal costs if he fails to meet the FCC's regimen for alerting viewers to a Feb. 17 cut-off.

He joked that since Monday is a federal holiday, "a lot of us are expecting to hear from the FCC at 4:59 on Friday the 13th that we can [or can't] go." 

There is an even greater urgency to the promptness in the FCC's notification of stations.

According to the FCC's own rules implementing the date change, any station that wants to go early has to start airing a crawl every five minutes of every hour starting at 11:59 p.m. tonight (Feb. 10). If the FCC does not inform the stations it won't be allowing to make that move within the next few hours, some may be informing viewers they are going Feb. 17 when they are not.

That may well be the case.  "It's better that people be overprepared than underprepared," said FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield.

Glen Dickson contributed to this story.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.