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Delaying digital TV

Broadcasters will fight for a delay in the 2002 deadline for going digital, now that their battle over DTV cable carriage appears doomed.

"We ain't going to make May of '02," Lowell "Bud" Paxson, chairman of Paxson Communications, told NATPE conventioneers last week. "Broadcasters will put together a Normandy invasion to Capitol Hill and the FCC."

The industry has little choice, TV executives say, after the commission in its last act under Democratic Chairman William Kennard failed to grant stations a right to demand dual carriage of analog and digital signals during the DTV transition. Kennard's commission also denied stations the right to demand carriage of multicast DTV signals.

Officially, DTV trade groups are reluctant to ask for a delay in the 2002 deadline. Privately, however, individual executives say a delay has been discussed at a recent board meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters and at last week's get-together of the Association of Local Television Stations (ALTV).

"It's very, very frustrating to be told we have to rely on the marketplace when other industries have been built on our backs," said Andrew Fisher, president of Cox Television. "We really need help."

Broadcasters maintain that a combination of factors will make it impossible for all 1,288 stations to go digital by May 2002. Currently, 174 stations offer digital signals in addition to their analog transmissions, which can continue until at least 2006.

So many stations trying to go on the air in such a short time, broadcasters say, will cause a crunch of equipment problems. Also, the lack of cable carriage will make it impossible for independents and stations in small and rural markets to build or pay for digital facilities.

"Smaller markets won't happen in time," said Tony Vinciquerra, of Hearst-Argyle Television, which has 35 stations that are on schedule to meet the 2002 deadline.

Newly named FCC Chairman Michael Powell appears to be an ally in the fight for a delay, even though he voted with Kennard and fellow Republican Harold Furchtgott-Roth to deny rights for cable carriage of broadcasters' multicast DTV signals and indicated that chances are slim for dual carriage of both analog and digital signals during the transition.

"I'm no fan of these expectations about the time frame in which this transition is going to occur," Powell told the ALTV, which also met in Las Vegas last week. "I find the current time frame extraordinarily unlikely to be achieved. We get the sense we're failing or stalling simply because we're measuring against these expectations."

Powell considers it is unreasonable to expect that the industry can remake itself with new technology and replace consumer sets by 2006, the date when the government aims to take back analog spectrum if 85% of U.S. homes have digital sets. "I look in history in vain to find examples of consumer transformation, be it CDs from records to the introduction of VCR, to find any examples that show this complete a transformation in the time frame expected."

Powell would not commit the FCC to a mass delay, although it has the right to grant extensions to individual stations and, in his formal statement on the DTV rules last week, he wrote, "Recourse to Congress may be warranted."

Most surprisingly, Furchtgott-Roth, who loathes second-guessing Congress, agrees that the statutorily mandated deadlines will be impossible to meet. "It's difficult to see how broadcasters in small and medium-size cities can rationally make investments to doing digital broadcasting. It seems a suicidal act at times. I have no doubt the spectrum will not be cleared by 2006."

The deadlines, he said, "were part of a little white lie to get Congress out of town in 1996," when the DTV statute was passed. The numbers were not based on any analysis of how long a digital transformation should take but instead were picked to speed auctions of reclaimed TV spectrum and to coincide with budget-balancing timetables.

Capitol Hill staffers are sympathetic with broadcasters' dilemma but warned that they are in for a fight if they attempt to delay the rollout.

For starters, many congressmen seem not to realize that the 1996 Telecommunications Act gave stations flexibility in creating digital services and are angry that stations want to use their digital spectrum for multicast and data services in addition to high-definition TV, said Andrew Levin, aide to Sen. John Dingell, the Commerce Committee's ranking Democrat. "You guys need to be wary of this and ready to defend the act and original intent behind it," he said.

He noted that the wireless industry is eager to take portions of the broadcast spectrum scheduled to be auctioned in March and will push Congress for legislation that will punish stations that delay its return. (Broadcasters won a round against wireless companies last week when the FCC reaffirmed that stations have the right to demand lucrative early buyouts from winners of the March auction of TV Ch. 60-69.)

Congress could put a damper on TV stations' spirits if it takes up Kennard's call to impose a fee on "spectrum squatters" that don't give up their analog spectrum in 2006, regardless of whether the 85%-DTV-penetration trigger necessary for mandating a give-back is reached.

"You guys are at risk for being blamed if there are delays," Levin told the broadcasters.