DTV Switch Date Rankles TV Stations

Congress agreed to move the DTV transition date to June 12 last week, but that may be the only certainty in an issue where the seams are most definitely showing.

According to Democrats who pushed the change through at the urging of the White House, the goal will be a seamless transition through the next four months, rather than the “bungled” one overseen by Republicans and the previous administration. But hundreds of stations will likely go digital on Feb. 17 regardless, which may cause the FCC to step in. In implementing the rules, the FCC has said that while stations may still ask to pull the plug on Feb. 17, the commission may deny the request if it feels it is not in the public interest—for example, if all the stations in a market with high analog-only penetration want to make the switch early.

So, while the date move was billed as voluntary for stations, in practice it may not be.

Another reason for the delay: Clearing up the waiting list for government-subsidized coupons will have to wait for Congress to pass the economic stimulus package, which may not happen until March.

“Teamed with the stimulus appropriation, the delay will be sufficient to assure a smooth DTV transition,” said House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who spearheaded the Democrats' debate on the bill. But a smooth transition, even with the extension, seems a tall order. FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell said it was going to be messy.

Viewers must now be re-educated about the new date. There are still DTV reception issues affecting numerous stations. And besides moving the date, the bill's other purpose was to allow everyone whose DTV-to-analog converter box coupons have expired to apply for new ones. But that does not take anyone off the coupon waiting list, which is now pushing four million applications.

Depending on how many people reapply for coupons and get converter boxes, there could be a shortage of those boxes, Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro warned last week.

Both sides should brace for conflict. While some broadcasters have already scheduled crews to move antennas, others don't want to continue to pay for delivering dual signals at an energy cost that one Republican estimated could be $140 million nationwide. The commission said it will try to be accommodating, but it will have to perform its balancing act quickly: Broadcasters have until Feb. 9 to inform the FCC of their plans.

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps said last week that ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and Telemundo have pledged to keep their analog signals running through June 12, while Gannett and Hearst-Argyle said the vast majority of their stations would do so. McDowell added that the FCC would need to balance the public interest in maintaining analog with the needs of stations that might have to decide between keeping analog and cutting staffers in a withering economy.

During sometimes heated floor debate on the date-move bill last week, Republicans argued that the result of the bill's passage would be $650 million spent needlessly in an economy that's tanking, first responders denied access to spectrum for emergency communications, and further confusion for viewers who had been told for the past two years that Feb. 17 was the deadline, period. It was also pointed out that private companies spent billions to get access to the spectrum, which the government promised to deliver on Feb. 17.

Democrats countered that moving the date would buy time to ensure that the 6.5 million TV households Nielsen predicted were unready for the switch would now be prepared. The Nielsen number was reduced, the day after the bill was passed, to 5.8 million. That translates to 5.1% of U.S. households being unready, meaning without cable or satellite, a DTV set, or a converter box hooked up—though Nielsen conceded that some of those houses counted might have boxes sitting in the closet.

Democrats also argued that, according to the FCC, few first responders would make immediate use of reclaimed analog TV spectrum, and that the greater pubic safety threat would have been to allow millions of analog-only viewers to lose their lifeline to TV service. Boucher also said that the two largest bidders for spectrum, AT&T and Verizon, had supported moving the date, as did the major networks and some public safety organizations.

A larger number of stations than previously anticipated are likely to terminate their analog operations on the original date of Feb. 17, according to Ardell Hill, senior VP of broadcast operations for Media General. Maintaining analog service for the Media General group costs $150,000 in electricity per month alone. “That's just raw electric, to keep analog running,” Hill says. “In today's environment, that's a lot of money.”

Media General plans to turn off early in several markets, chiefly ones where all the stations are already on their final DTV channel assignment.

John Broomall, who runs non-commercial Christian station WATC Atlanta, plans to switch on Feb. 17, “unless we are hauled kicking and screaming” to June 12. He pointed to the cost of continuing with his aging analog equipment: “I am ready on a moment's notice to produce a spot that says we don't care when anybody else is shutting down, we're shutting down on [Feb. 17].”

Broomall already has a 30-minute program on the history of television ready to go for that last day. “At the very end, this hand goes to an off button on-camera, and everything goes black.”

Glen Dickson contributed to this story.

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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.