FCC's New DTV Rules Allow for Some TV Disruption

The Federal Communications Commission released its final rules for the Feb. 17, 2009, switch to digital-TV transmission Monday, saying that it balanced the flexibility necessary for a complex and challenging undertaking, while requiring broadcasters "to maintain the best possible television service to the public and meet viewers’ over-the-air reception expectations after the transition date."

But the FCC said "some disruption" to TV service "may be unavoidable" in the run-up to the turn-off of analog.

The commission said in releasing its Third Periodic DTV Review that some stations will be allowed to operate at less than full power after the transition if they have a "unique technical challenge." In some cases, that could mean not reaching up to 15% of their current viewers.

The FCC will also allow some stations to discontinue service for up to 30 days to make the digital switch so long as they notify the FCC and viewers beforehand, and up to 90 days before the Feb. 17, 2009, date with the same notification requirement.

The rules also require all broadcasters to report to the FCC by February on their progress toward the digital switch, and again in October.

"As all major changes tend to be, the coming transition to digital-television transmission is an exciting -- but complicated -- revolution," FCC chairman Kevin Martin said in releasing the order. "The rules we adopt in this item attempt to provide broadcasters the flexibility they need while at the same time ensuring that any disruption to over-the-air viewers is minimized to the fullest extent possible."

But some on the commission suggested that the disruption was greater than necessary. 

Democratic FCC commissioner Michael Copps -- who has been critical of the way the FCC and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration are handling the transition -- said the rules were one year overdue and that essentially pulling the plug for all stations at once was a "throw of the dice ... It is unfathomable to me that we are planning to turn off every analog signal in the country on a single day without running at least one test market first," saying that is now under discussion.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.