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FCC Tees Up Digital-TV Standards

When then-FCC Commissioner Reed Hundt agreed to relax rules requiring digital TV stations to duplicate their analog programs, his aim was to encourage multicasting and other innovative programming. Six years later, a new FCC lineup is questioning whether he went far enough.

Last week, the FCC said it might ease digital simulcasting requirements that currently require TV stations to duplicate analog programming. The agency is asking for public input on whether the current mandate will stifle innovative digital programming.

The phased-in requirement kicks in April 1, when TV stations must dedicate 50% of their primary digital signal to duplication of the analog channel. The simulcast quota increases to 75% in April 2004 and 100% in April 2005.

Under the FCC's new plan, stations would be permitted to air whatever digital programming they want but would face higher quotas for the amount of digital programming aired. Currently most stations—those outside top-30 markets or not affiliated with Big Four networks—must air DTV 50% of the time the station airs in analog beginning April 1. The quota would be increased to 75% in April 2004 and 100% in April 2005.

Broadcasters like the idea of more-flexible simulcasting rules, although they have floated a different proposal. In fact, the National Association of Broadcasters has been fighting to soften simulcasting rules since they were first imposed in 1992. Back then, the government didn't envision broadcasters' being able to offer multiple channel streams and mandated DTV simulcast rules that would have allowed stations to do little more than offer a prettier version of their single analog channel.

Recognizing that the original rule would hinder stations' ability to capitalize on the multiple-transmission capabilities created when stations choose not to broadcast in full high-definition, Hundt limited the simulcast requirement to one primary channel and let stations air whatever they wanted on the others.

Simulcasting was made part of the DTV plan because policymakers feared that viewers would never be weaned off their old analog channels if they couldn't get their favorite shows in digital. Networks backed the mandate as a way of ensuring that they would continue as dominant programming suppliers. TV stations, represented by the NAB, complained that "rigid rules" would prevent broadcasters from offering whatever programming would most effectively draw viewers.

That dispute seems quaint now after the networks turned out to be the almost exclusive supplier of high-definition programming and few stations have figured out how to fill the several channels that would be freed up when they don't air HDTV.

Under an NAB plan suggested in December, simulcasting requirements would be triggered by DTV-set penetration rather than calendar deadlines. "Broadcasters' obligations should be tied to viewers' ability to watch," said NAB regulatory attorney Jack Goodman. But the FCC doesn't appear ready to place broadcasters' obligations in the hands of so-far sluggish consumers.

Revision of the simulcasting requirement is being considered as part of the FCC's latest review of the DTV transition, issued last week. The FCC also is asking for a new round of comment to supplement earlier input on digital broadcasters' public-interest obligations, which the agency said it would delineate "promptly" following years of inaction.

Also under consideration are changes to DTV coverage-area requirements, including whether to adopt an intermediate coverage-area mandate for expanding signals beyond community of license and eliminating interference protection in uncovered areas when stations don't reach their maximum allotted coverage area or replicate their analog coverage area. (Big Four affiliates in top-100 markets would lose protection July 1, 2005; all others, July 1, 2006.)

Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein were heartened to see DTV public-interest obligations teed-up again.

Late last year, Copps called on the FCC to revive the rulemaking. "These outstanding DTV public-interest proceedings are many times more important than digital tuners and set-top boxes."