Low Powers Seek $450M in DTV Aid

Just smacked down by the courts, the low-power TV industry's lobby is asking Congress for $450 million to make the conversion to digital as soon as possible, saying that many in the industry face bankruptcy and potential ruin due to government policies.

Low-power stations aren't required to make the DTV transition by any set date, but the Community Broadcasters Association is concerned that if stations don't make the switch soon, they could be left behind in an analog world that few people can access.

"Now that the court has slapped us down without explanation," CBA vice president of technology Greg Herman said, "completely taking a pass on their responsibility to interpret or enforce the laws correctly, our effort is to find a solution to this tremendously difficult problem."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit declined this week to step in. The CBA asked it to force the Federal Communications Commission to enforce its All-Channel Receiver Act, which the CBA said would have required that all DTV-to-analog converter boxes contain the analog tuners that would allow viewers to still get analog low-power stations' signals after the Feb. 17, 2009, date on which full-power TV stations must pull the plug on their analog signals.

There are 14 converter boxes that pass through an analog signal, but those are almost impossible to find, Herman said, adding that the DTV transition has essentially been botched.

Jason Oxman, spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association, sees it quite differently: "The nation’s transition to DTV is on track and is working," he told B&C. "Every industry and government entity with an interest in DTV is engaged in tireless education efforts with the notable exception of the CBA, which instead devotes its considerable energy to lawsuits, attacks on hard-working government employees and self-serving public-relations campaigns."

Oxman added, "For the small number of Americans who receive television signals from low-power stations that refuse to migrate to DTV, the CBA and its member companies have a duty to educate them about their myriad options (including 14 NTIA-certified [National Telecommunications and Information Administration] converter boxes with pass-through capability) to continue watching free, over-the-air television.”

With its court challenge rejected, the CBA sent letters to legislators this week asking that a $65 million assistance program for low-powers in smaller markets be extended to all low-power stations to the tune of $450 million, or $150,000 per station.

Herman said the money would not come out of taxpayers’ pockets, but could instead come from the $9.6 billion in additional funds the FCC raised in its recent spectrum auction above what was earmarked for other programs -- such as the converter-box-coupon subsidies -- and the federal treasury.

And if Congress doesn't? "They have been squeezing low-power stations for decades,” Herman added. “It is time to make a decision about whether they want to keep or kill us. It they want to kill us, to crush us out of existence or legislate us out of existence or ignore us out of existence, then take responsibility for it. That is the ugly truth. We are tired of government just assuming everything is going to be OK. We are going to scream and yell.”

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.