L.A. DTV Spat Could be a Test Case

Washington— A California TV station planning to surrender its analog license this month is having trouble securing digital-signal carriage on some Time Warner Cable systems in the Los Angeles market.

The dispute could become an important federal-policy test case, because station KVMD in Twentynine Palms is the first broadcaster committed to making an immediate transition to digital transmission.

Under Federal Communications Commission rules, KVMD is entitled to elect mandatory cable carriage for its digital signal once it gives up its analog TV license. The FCC also permits digital-only TV stations to demand cable carriage in analog if the station supplies the necessary conversion equipment.

Carriage upside

KVMD's analog signal covers an area with about 60,000 viewers. Its more-powerful digital signal is expected to reach an additional 4.8 million people.

"The digital signal is very a broad signal that will cover a lot more ground that the analog signal," said KVMD owner Ronald Ulloa.

KVMD has been operating its digital station at reduced power levels, pursuant to a special FCC license.

In September, Time Warner sent the station a carriage-rejection letter, claiming the station failed to deliver a "good quality signal" to the relevant headends.

KVMD told the FCC Time Warner must have been measuring the analog signal, because the operator's testing occurred many months prior to the launch of DTV transmission.

That particular debate aside, Time Warner wants FCC permission to exclude many systems in various Los Angeles suburbs from KVMD's market.

Under FCC rules, Time Warner can seek market modifications if it can demonstrate that the station does not serve the local needs of cable customers, the system does not have a history of carrying the station and the station is geographically remote from the cable properties.

Time Warner said all three criteria apply to KVMD, especially the one regarding geographic remoteness. The MSO said some systems it wants excluded from KVMD's market are more that two hours by car from the station.

Gary Metz, Time Warner Cable's vice president and assistant general counsel, said it was also notable that KVMD offers syndicated programming and fails to provide local news of interest to cable subscribers.

Because the FCC is egging on the shift to digital, it might not want fights over market modification to deter stations that want to convert rapidly. But realistically, only a small number of broadcasters are willing to abandon analog TV in the near future because doing so would cut them off from nearly all of their off-air viewers.

A situation similar to KVMD's exists in Atlantic City, N.J., where independent station WWAC has FCC permission to cease analog broadcasting, but has not said when it will make the transition.

WWAC's digital signal, which is much stronger than its analog feed, would reach an additional 1.3 million cable subscribers — mostly Comcast Corp. customers in the Philadelphia market.