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FCC Releases Rules For Implementing DTV Date Switch

Related:The DTV Countdown - Complete Coverage of the DTV Transition 

Stations that still want to pull the plug on analog by Feb. 17 have to let the FCC know ASAP, though the FCC reserves the right to deny the request depending on the degree to which it would affect viewers.

The FCC has released its rules implementing the extension of the DTV date, and they will require any station that still wants to end analog transmissions by Feb. 17 to let the FCC know by Feb. 9 and to air at least 120 PSA's informing viewers of that fact between now and Feb. 17, according to an FCC spokesperson.

But the FCC did not say all those requests would be granted.

Since the president has not yet signed the bill, according to a White House spokesperson, the new implementation rules are contingent on that signature.

Congress Wednesday passed a new law changing the DTV transition date from Feb. 17 to June 12, but directing the FCC to accommodate those wanting to go earlier, including on the Feb. 17 date they have been advertising for a couple of years.

But while Acting Chairman Michael Copps said in his first meeting Thursday that the FCC would be flexible in terms of stations that want to still pull the plug on Feb. 17, he said the FCC would have the option of not agreeing to do so if it were not in the public interest, including not giving viewers sufficient chance to prepare.

For example, he said, if all the major stations in a market were going on Feb. 17, that would bear scrutiny, he said.

"Consistent with our public interest responsibilities and Congress' delay of the transition to June 12 to give consumers additional time to prepare, the Commission reserves the right to limit or reconsider this partial waiver in the event that it determines that analog termination on February 17 by a station or group of stations is contrary to the public interest.  In such event, the Commission will promptly notify the affected station or stations," the new implementing rules say. " The Commission may consider such action if, for example, we find that all or most of the stations in a market will terminate their analog service on February 17, and that the market is one in which many viewers are unprepared for the transition or at risk if the transition proceeds.  In such case, we may require affected stations to submit additional information to explain and justify how their early termination advances the public interest.  Such additional information can include significant economic, technical, contractual and other business reasons that support termination on February 17.  The Commission will scrutinize such information closely in light of the important interests at stake to determine whether a compelling case has been made."

Copps also announced that a number of station groups had pledged to keep all or most of their stations on the air in analog until June 12.

Groups committed to June 12, he said, included those of CBS, Fox, NBC, Telemundo and ABC. Gannett and Hearst-Argyle had pledged to keep the vast majority of their stations on until June 12.

The FCC is encouraging stations that do pull the plug early to continue to broadcast emergency and DTV consumer education information on their analog channel, where feasible.
The commission also told stations that if they terminate analog before June 12, they must continue to broadcast on their temporary DTV channel rather than their final channel. If they want instead to move to their final channel allotment, they must file a request for special temporary authority.

Copps encouraged broadcasters not to continue to use a countdown clock--an FCC requirement--unless they were planning on switching Feb. 17, saying others should not start their clocks until 100 days before the date the planned to transition.

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said Thursday that the FCC wanted to avoid a "Wild West" sencario of stations moving on different dates and encouraged broadcasters to take a careful, considered approach on an individual market basis. He praised the networks for not going early. He said he much appreciated any station who stuck in out until June 12, but understood that would not be possible for some stations, and that the FCC would work to accommodate them.

Copps conceded the transition will not be seamless.

Commissioner Robert McDowell went further, saying that it will be "messy, regardless of when it happens." He pointed to broadcasters' burden of continuing to operate in analog and digital, including additional electricity costs at the same time that ad revenues are plummeting due to the recession. He said some could be forced to choose between staff layoffs and continued analog operations, and said the FCC must balance that with consumer needs for continued access to vital emergency information they may only be able to receive via TV.

McDowell also said that the FCC's call center has made progress, including coordinating with a broader call center effort spearheaded by the National Cable & Telecommuniations Association and others. He had complained to then FCC Chairman Kevin Martin that the FCC's center had long wait times, dropped calls and was not open on weekends. 

Stations who want to make the switch after Feb. 17 but before June 12 will not be able to do so between Feb. 18 and March 14, according to the FCC.

The commission did not waive its 90-day notification rule for anyone not going Feb. 17 because, they said, "Unlike the legitimate station expectations that support the partial waiver for analog terminations on February 17, stations cannot have reasonably relied on plans to terminate analog service after February 17 because such operation would have been contrary to existing law."