FCC spares DTV rod

TV stations that can't justify missing the May 1 digital launch deadline will have an extra six months before facing substantial penalty from the FCC.

Last week, the commission approved procedures for fining or even stripping permits of DTV laggards, but these toughest sanctions won't be levied right away. "Our goal isn't to punish people but to achieve the goal of getting programming out there," said Barbara Kreisman, chief of the Media Bureau's video services division.

Stations that can justify delays based on technical problems, delays in scheduling construction crews, zoning fights, or inability to obtain financing are allowed as many as two six-month waivers. Those denied waivers will be sent a letter of admonishment and required to report regularly on their progress in bringing DTV online.

Admonished stations that fail to go digital within six months of the reprimand will be issued a notice of apparent liability for fines and required to meet a series of 30-day construction milestones. If a station fails to offer a digital signal a year after admonishment, the FCC will revoke its construction permit.

Although penalties won't kick in immediately, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said the sanctions process has sufficient bite to eliminate any temptation a station owner might have to ignore digital-conversion obligations. "We're willing to be quite tough if need be," he said. "While there are opportunities for waivers, the leash is short."

Of the 1,300-plus commercial stations required to be on the air with digital, roughly two-thirds requested a waiver for the May 1 deadline. Of those requests, 544 have been granted. FCC requests for additional information explaining the delays remain outstanding from another 303 stations.

The sanctions process must undergo the standard comment-and-reply process before becoming permanent but will go into effect immediately on a case-by-case basis meantime. The commission tentatively concluded that channels confiscated from canceled construction permits will be re-auctioned.

NAB officials said the sanctions appeared reasonable. "We believe the vast majority of broadcasters will work aggressively to meet the DTV plan put forth today as evidenced by the fact that Harris Corp. has 700 transmitters on order right now," said spokesman Dennis Wharton.

Industrywide, 410 stations are now digital. Of those, 113 are among the 119 affiliates of the Big Four networks in top-30 markets required to offer digital signals since Nov. 1, 1999.

The remaining top-market stations with no digital signals have adequately justified their tardiness due to a variety of equipment, interference and zoning problems: WTVJ(TV) Miami; KUSA-TV Denver; WTIC-TV and WVIT-TV, both Hartford, Conn.; and WABC-TV and WNBC-TV, both New York. Except for the two New York stations, whose digital transmitters were destroyed in the World Trade Center attack and which are not being held to the timetable, the stations were given another six months to complete the DTV buildout.

Six-month extensions also were granted to five top-30-market stations operating with lower-power temporary permits while they work out similar problems: WBBM-TV Chicago; KTVT(TV) Fort Worth, Texas; KMGH-TV and KCNC-TV, both Denver, and WFSB-TV Hartford.