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Digital Decisions

In a big win for broadcasters, the FCC last week approved a "repacking" plan that finally will allow all stations to pick their permanent DTV channel assignments.

The plan was in a batch of DTV initiatives the commissioners passed to speed the transition from analog.

Repacking will require the industry to pick DTV channels in three stages, beginning in November. Adapted from a version proposed by a DTV trade group, the plan is intended to bring some order to the complicated process of setting final DTV assignments. The initial plan was conceived by the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), which represents broadcasters in Washington on technical issues, such as digital TV and interference.

Repacking will be "like playing a game of three-dimensional chess," says MSTV President David Donovan. "But it's absolutely necessary."

The process is required because there will soon be 18 fewer channels for DTV in each market. The government plans to auction channels 52-69 to wireless companies and other new users. Broadcasters who were assigned to operate these channels on a temporary basis will need to find one in the 2-51 range.

One such station is LIN Television's WNAC Providence, R.I., which operates channel 64 in analog and offers digital programming temporarily on channel 54. Once it becomes clear which channels will be freed up when other stations go all-digital, WNAC can pick its permanent digital home.

The first round of the channel-selection process begins in December, when stations lucky enough to have both their analog and digital assignments within the 2-51 core finally decide which they will keep. Remaining stations will pick channels in two more rounds, in July 2005 and January 2006.

Separately, the FCC handed TiVo a victory by including its digital recorder among 13 devices in compliance with the agency's new "broadcast-flag" copy-protection technology. Last year, the FCC required all digital TVs and recorders to include the technology, which prevents consumers from retransmitting TV programs over the Internet or mass-producing copies. The flag does not prevent copies' being played on additional sets, DVD players or PCs a viewer owns.

Hollywood opposed TiVo's recorder because it permits copies to be played on as many as nine additional players, including those outside the owner's home or even in other cities. Movie studios complained that TiVo's lenient playback rules permitted mass distribution of copyrighted movies.

Among other FCC changes: requiring digital programming to activate closed-captioning and V-chip–style channel blocking, and eliminating, for now, a requirement that stations duplicate their analog programming on one digital channel.