DTV picture clouds over

Paxson Communications is the latest broadcaster urging the FCC to face up to what could be a growing number of interference complaints as new digital TV stations power up.

On June 11, WBOC-TV Salisbury, Md., filed a complaint accusing WHRO-DT Hampton Roads, Va., of encroaching on ch. 16 across the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Soon after, Paxson Communications' lawyer reminded the FCC that KSPX(TV) Sacramento, Calif., had filed a similar complaint four months earlier against CBS digital affiliate KPIX-DT San Francisco. The California stations use ch. 29.

In both instances, the stations are in separate markets and were expected to have no interference problems when digital channel assignments were issued.

But industry sources say they know the cause of today's problems: The lack of real-world knowledge about digital signal propagation forced the FCC to rely on theoretical modeling to allocate channels. As more digital stations come on-air, however, broadcasters are finding that the actual coverage area and signal strength of DTV stations are sometimes quite different from the theoretical. Consequently, the new signals may interfere with existing analog stations.

"The commission must decide how it will resolve complaints where DTV interference extends well beyond the predicted into an [analog] station's existing city grade service area," Paxson attorney John Feore wrote in a letter to Rick Chessen, the FCC's DTV point person.

The FCC would like stations to work out problems privately, as WMVS-DT Milwaukee did when it agreed to cut power after it interfered with WOOD-TV Grand Rapids, Mich. But the government will have to step in eventually because few stations are likely to give up some of their broadcast rights willingly.

Hampton Roads' WHRO, for instance, contends that it is complying with FCC regs and that WBOC-TV has not demonstrated a reception problem that requires FCC intervention. Even if serious interference is demonstrated, "there is no legal basis for the FCC to declare WHRO-DT to be 'at fault' ... so long as WHRO-DT's facilities are in compliance with FCC rules."

In a 98-page counter-reply filed July 5, WBOC-TV's attorneys argued that WHRO's response is wrong "as a matter of policy and law" and "does not make sense."

WBOC-TV submitted additional evidence of harm, including interference reports, e-mails, charts and a sworn statement from a Cox Cable executive saying that Comcast "has observed significant levels of interference" with WBOC-TV's signal from late April through July 3. More than "2,000 complaints regarding WBOC-TV's picture" have been received from cable viewers, WBOC said.