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Facing reality

The FCC appears poised to help both itself and broadcasters. If our reading of the tea leaves is correct, the commission plans at its Nov. 8 meeting to propose an E-Z-Waiver form for broadcasters who don't make the 2002 deadline for having a DTV signal up and running. For a variety of reasons—technical, logistical, financial—lots of broadcasters, particularly in smaller markets, aren't going to make that deadline. Making the waiver process easier will save the FCC time and paper and greatly decrease the aspirin budget at station engineering departments. With a tanking economy and other strains on time and attention, the move is just aligning the policy with the reality.

The FCC is also planning to loosen the timetable for powering up the digital signal to match broadcasters' analog-coverage area. That's because there are still few digital sets in use and it would waste a lot of energy to require stations to broadcast a signal where there are virtually no sets.

While we are applauding the FCC, we add another ovation for its relaxation last week of rules governing broadcasters' filing public comments. Recognizing the mail-processing problems associated with the anthrax attacks, the commission has given broadcasters a 60-day grace period in which all comments do not have to be filed. It may extend that time period if mail problems persist. In the best of all possible worlds, neither this nor the DTV delay would be necessary. At the moment, unfortunately, this is not the best of all possible worlds.

On second thought

USA Studios was right to rethink, and ultimately scrap, plans to air WTC-themed episodes of Crossing Over with John Edward,
the show in which the purported psychic purports to communicate with the dead. Like the idea or hate it (put us in the latter column), it might well have been a ratings winner. This is not the first time the studio has been willing to change course. Whatever your opinion of Jerry Springer, then or now, Studios USA cut pugilistic elements of the show that drew a big audience, but much criticism. The ratings went down, and stayed down, as the studio knew they would.

In the case of Crossing Over, we'll give the producers the benefit of the doubt that they either 1) actually believe this guy's for real, and thus thought of it as a sort of sweeps public service—according to USA, WTC family members came to the show, not the other way around—or 2) know it to be entertainment, but believe it can have a placebo effect potentially as comforting as the real thing. That would explain USA's profession of surprise that the news of the WTC segments prompted criticism from various quarters, including from some stations carrying the show. Behind door number 3, of course, would be exploiting the tragedy for the sake of sweeps ratings. But we're not going there, and neither is Studios USA.