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FCC: Stations Must Warn Viewers of Signal Loss

According to sources, the FCC is poised today to release new rules of the road for the DTV transition that include requiring broadcasters losing at least 2% of their historic coverage area in the switch from digital to analog to warn viewers on-air.

The commission is said to need to get the rules out before 2 p.m.

The notification requirement will be either a crawl or PSA, and the loss in viewership will be calculated according to DTV reception maps the FCC has posted on its Web site .

Noncommercial broadcasters pleading hardship are also getting waivers to pull the plug on analog before April 16. Stations have until Tuesday (March 17) to elect their transition date, but it can't be before April 16 absent a waiver, which is a little less than two months before the June 12 hard date.

That makes this different from the original Feb. 17 hard date, when stations were allowed to pull the plug 90 days before the date so long as they let the FCC and viewers know.

The FCC is also resetting the countdown clock requirement from 100 days to 60 days, which should please broadcasters.

In meetings with Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein about the FCC's guidelines for compliance with the new DTV hard date of June 12, the National Association of Broadcasters' top regulatory affairs staffers had said restarting the clock so soon would "decrease its effectiveness in prompting viewer action."  The FCC had responded by suspending the 100-day requirement pending a decision on that request.

The decision to require notification of signal loss was driven in part by the experience of the Feb. 17 analog cut-off, when over 400 stations elected to stick with the original plan.

According to just-released FCC figures, the greatest percentage of DTV-related calls it received on Feb. 17 were from viewers who were having reception or technical problems, which it defined as problems receiving any channels, antenna problems, or weak or intermittent signals. Those accounted for 26% of the 27,764 calls it received.

Over 600 stations have already made the transition from analog to digital, although that represents only about 13% of total viewership because most of the large markets have yet to convert.