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PBS Weighs Analog Shutdown

Public television stations are considering shutting down their analog TV service on an agreed-upon, specified date, but only if cable and satellite guarantee carriage of all digital programming services any one public station can transmit.

"Any plan for an early return of analog spectrum is dead without guarantees — either negotiated or mandated — that all of our stations' digital signals are carried on cable and direct-broadcast satellite systems," said John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations, in a statement Friday.

Commercial and public TV stations awarded digital licenses have to surrender their analog licenses to the Federal Communications Commission the later of Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85% of TV homes in their markets can receive off-air DTV signals. Most observers believe the 85% test won't be met for many years.

FCC rules do not allow holders of analog and digital TV licenses to demand cable carriage for the digital service. If a TV station is eligible for digital must-carry, it is entitled to cable carriage of a single programming service — not carriage of multiple services, as contemplated under APTS's plan.

The FCC does not have rules covering direct broadcast satellite carriage of DTV signals.

However, Lawson's announcement came at a time when the FCC is reconsidering whether to lift the ban on multicast must-carry. Earlier this week, a Burbank, Calif., company promised the FCC it would launch a broadcast network solely for kids if the FCC mandated cable carriage of multiple digital broadcasting services. (See story on page 26.)

A plan to go all-digital must take into account millions of homes with analog TV sets that would need to use a converter box or a pay-TV service to continue receiving public television. In his statement, Lawson noted that Berlin, Germany, made the switch in August by "marketing set-tops" to the city's 160,000 off-air-only households.

The switch would save the nation's public stations $23 million annually in duplicative electricity costs and would free up valuable spectrum for alternative uses. But Lawson said the analog shut-down was a proposal just taking shape.

"There obviously are many challenges to weigh before proceeding, and I must emphasize that this is the beginning of a process that will involve extensive research at the legislative, regulatory and consumer-market levels," Lawson said.

A few commercial TV stations have made the switch. The first was WWAC-DT in Atlantic City, N.J., last December.