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Copps: DTV Transition Not Done Without Diverse Programming

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps said Saturday that he would not consider the digital transition finished until all consumer problems are solved and TV stations were using their extra digital bandwidth for diverse programming that serves the public interest.

At a press conference, FCC commissioners and staffers talked about some of the problems that remained. They included issues with channel 7 in Chicago (WLS-TV), which because of relatively low operating power was having trouble reaching some high-rise areas and downtown areas with a digital signal, according to a commission staffer, who said the FCC was working on possible technical fixes. Chicago topped the list of calls to the FCC hotline in terms of percentage of TV households, and was second in total volume. Another market with issues was Dallas-Fort Worth, which was also in the top five call volume on Friday.

The FCC attributed that to both a high percentage of over-the-air viewers, as well as one station whose new DTV coverage area excluded more than 2% of its former analog viewership, an issue in other markets as well. It also pointed to problems with getting the digital signal to satellite subs.

The chairman also conceded that the FCC had canceled some call center contracts, but had a vigorous oversight process in place. That was in response to a letter from top House Energy & Commerce Committee Republicans who had written Copps to ask about, among other things, rumors that some call centers funded by the FCC did not exist and how useful the ones that did exist were.

“The walk-in centers proved extremely useful,” he said. He said initial estimates were that 17,000 folks made use of the centers. “We have tried to field an extremely aggressive oversight program. We have FCC staff personally visiting the walk-in centers. “Were we find contractors not performing, there may have been a small number, we have moved quickly to terminate those contracts.” He did not have figures on how many contractors had been terminated.

Among the other problems with the transition so far included a so-called "Act of God" involving a Memphis tornado that knocked a station off the air, and possible cable headend as well as satellite reception, though, the commission emphasized that those were generally isolated issues that were being addressed.

The FCC said it was on track to field another 150,000 calls Saturday after Friday's record 317,000-plus. DTV coordinator Bill Lake said it also had 10,000 in-home installations pending on top of 20,00 it has done so far.

All the commissioners participating in the conference call agreed the transition had gone relative well so far. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said that it was "looking more like Y2K than the Bay of Pigs."

But Copps said he was not ready to declare it a home run, and wouldn't be probably for some time.

Borrowing a baseball analogy, Copps said: "Maybe you could say we are safe on third right now.," he said, explaining that getting to first was delaying the date, and getting to second base was getting call centers and outreach in place. "Third base I think is the process we are going thorough this weekend, which I think is proving by and large about what we expected it to be."

But Copps said it would not be a home run until "one, we solve all the consumer problems that are out there, and number two, very important in my mind, is to make sure that enhanced digital capacity broadcasters have available to them [goes to] good and solid public interest use."

He said that beyond the technical fixes, "how is the American public going to be benefitted by this."

Saying broadcasters have the capacity to broadcast five or six channels, he suggested he wanted to see a multiplicity of cultures and races and ethnic groups represented.

"I don't think we have done a particularly outstanding job of covering it in the analog age, but I think here is an opportunity to do it here in the digital age."

He said that he recognized there needed to be a business plan, but that he thought coming up with that multicasting plan could be a way for broadcasters to give lie to reports of their decline, saying it could "rejuvenate" broadcasting.

Adelstein agreed the DTV transition was not over yet. He said that it would take "a while" to get low power TV stations and translators. He said the FCC would need to be sensitive to the expense and revenue challenges of those stations.

"We want to get to the point where every transmission in the U.S. will be done by digital. It's not clear yet when that will be possible. It is doable. The FCC has the resources and Congress has the determination that we will move to an all-digital broadcasting environment sooner rather than later."