Low-Power Broadcasters Worried About Digital

When the digital transition occurs in February, viewers who get their signals from low-power stations and translators may find themselves in the dark.

An executive with the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) told the heads of a dozen state broadcast associations in a conference call two weeks ago that it is hard to find DTV-to-analog converter boxes that pass through an analog signal.

Without such boxes, millions of viewers could have a hard time getting signals. Many low-power stations will likely continue to broadcast in analog after the Feb. 17, 2009, digital deadline, when full-power stations must pull the plug on analog.

According to Amy Brown of the Community Broadcasters Association, a low-power TV lobby, the state associations asked to join the call were generally those with the highest numbers among the nation’s 6,000-plus translators. Those include Utah, with an estimated 10% of the nation’s total; and Idaho and Montana, mountainous states where the full-power TV signal needs a boost to reach tough terrain. An NAB executive declined to comment.

The problem, says Connie Searles, who heads the state broadcaster association in Idaho and was out of town when the call was held, is that “the people we need to talk to, primarily in rural areas, don’t understand that they need to buy a digital box with analog pass-through.”

The issue of the availability of these boxes has been heating up lately, driven in part by the FCC’s decision two weeks ago to allow stations in the Wilmington, N.C., market to pull the plug on analog Sept. 8. Doing so will give the commission an early view of what to expect when the plug is pulled in the rest of the country at 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 17.

Speaking for the NAB, Jonathan Collegio, senior VP of digital television, said the Wilmington digital test should be set up to answer the question of how the government plans to deal with converter-eligible analog pass-through box issues.

That point was driven home in a letter to the National Telecommunication & Information Association. NAB President David Rehr said that he wanted the NTIA to coordinate with the FCC to make analog pass-through boxes available in the market, adding that not having them there could “inconvenience and confuse” viewers.

The Senate Commerce Committee is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen. It recently added a provision to an appropriations bill that would let the NTIA spend money on educating viewers about, among other things, analog pass-through.

R. Kent Parsons, vice chairman of the National Translation Association, which represents low-power stations, is blunter than Rehr in his assessment of stations’ challenges. “It is going to be one hell of a nightmare on Feb. 18,” he suggests. Adding that it doesn’t have to be that way, Parsons points to a master plan he helped Utah translator operators set up. He says that more than 400 of the approximately 600 translators there are already broadcasting in digital as well as analog.

Parsons estimates that 75% of translators nationwide are not broadcasting in digital. And even if the analog pass-through boxes were widely available and well-marked, Parsons sees a problem with continued analog broadcasts from low-powers and translators: “The people who listened and said [issues] will never happen will have to flash-cut to digital or go out of business, because once people see digital quality, watching through a converter box is like drinking root beer without the fizz.”

Some help may be on the way. Parsons would not provide details, but he is preparing to submit a paper to the FCC on the translator conversion challenge that “might provide some relief.”

The NTIA says there are 15 coupon-eligible converter boxes that pass through an analog signal, but none is carried by Best Buy, the nation’s largest consumer electronics retailer. Best Buy, however, is in the process of changing that. Spokesman Brian Lucas says that while stores currently only carry the house-brand box, Insignia, Best Buy is adding a second pass-through box that should be available this summer. The retailer is also developing an accessory kit to add to boxes to make them pass through the signal.

E-mail comments to jeggerton@reedbusiness.com

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.