Border Stations Don't Speak Same Language

A group of English-language stations along the border with Mexico said it doesn’t want the option of continuing to broadcast in analog for up to five years after the Feb. 17, 2009, switch to digital. That stand exposed a rift between Spanish-language and English-language stations on the border.

"We're stating our opposition to any legislation to continue analog transitions beyond February of next year," Kevin Lovell, general manager of KVIA-TV El Paso, Texas, told B&C late Tuesday.

The DTV Border Fix Act, which was co-sponsored by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), would allow qualified TV stations within 50 miles of the border to broadcast in analog until 2014.

In a letter to the leadership of the House Energy & Commerce Committee and its Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee, GMs (including Lovell) and executives from almost one-dozen stations said allowing certain broadcasters to delay the transition for up to five years -- as would the DTV Border Fix Act, which passed by voice vote in the Senate and is awaiting House action -- "threatens to put viewers along the border in a state of limbo."

"Spanish-language broadcast interests have really pushed this because they want to continue transmissions to Mexico under the guise of emergency messages," Lovell said.

Now, English-language broadcasters are pushing back. "This letter represents the majority of English-language broadcasters on the border," he added.

"We have spent literally millions of dollars to be digital-ready on 2/17/09," the GMs wrote in a letter being faxed to congressional offices late Tuesday. "Many of us have multiple channels including local weather channels and targeted entertainment formats to better serve our markets and fulfill the promise of enhanced digital technologies. In the difficult financial environment today, should Congress now add the significant financial burden to border broadcasters of continuing analog-broadcasting operations for an additional five years?"

The bill would make the continued analog broadcasting optional, and it has numerous caveats, including that the stations could not interfere with digital-TV stations, could not interfere with public-safety communications and could not prevent the auction of public spectrum.

But Lovell said the reality is that if some stations continue in analog, the rest will be under competitive pressures to do so, as well, which would result in a confusing transition and additional expense by the stations that have to continue to simulcast.

Hutchison has emphasized that the bill will ensure that Spanish-speakers along the border, many of whom are analog-only TV viewers, will continue to be able to get emergency information.

Lovell conceded that there are high concentrations of analog-only viewers along the border, adding, "In El Paso, I believe it is still 34%. One out of three viewers is over-the-air, and I have to concur that the great majority of those are Spanish-dominant. So it is a little harder for them to get the message about the DTV converter boxes" and to receive emergency messages.

But Lovell and company countered that a mix of analog and digital broadcasts along the border will be a big mess and actually make it "harder to get messages out." Then, he added, whenever the border has to make the transition, "we won't have this united, universal push."

But he also suggested that the motive of the Spanish-language stations was not purely a case of relaying emergency information, saying that some have sales offices in Mexico and significant sales in Mexico.

"I'm all for broadcasters making money," he said, "and it is optional, but if any station continues to broadcast in analog, even if it is in Spanish -- we still have viewers who are Spanish-dominant watching sports and other programming on our station -- we believe competitive pressures will require all of us to continue analog plus digital. Five years down the road, it will be a nightmare trying to convert us to a platform that has already been established across the country."

Lovell said the timing of the letter was because Congress returned from its Labor Day recess Monday, and because the GMs believe there are "a number of lawmakers who don't know there is genuine and real opposition to analog extension."

Among the station owners represented on the letter were Tribune, Pappas Telecasting, Cox Television, McGraw-Hill, Sunbelt Communications and News Press & Gazette.

The letter was addressed to Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.), as well as the ranking members of the committee and subcommittee.

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.