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Stations to get DTV reprieve

Station engineers scrambling to meet digital TV deadlines will get to breathe a little easier, thanks to steps the FCC is expected to take next month.

The commission is reportedly preparing to grant broadcasters' requests for a simple waiver process that allows stations seeking reprieves from their May 2002 DTV build-out deadline. Also in the works are plans to delay TV stations' deadlines for replicating their current analog footprint with a digital signal and for transmitting DTV signals at their maximum allowable range.

If approved at the FCC's Nov. 8 meeting, the changes would be the first major steps taken on the DTV roll-out since Chairman Michael Powell set up a DTV task force on Oct. 11.

"There are a number of things ... that allow us to facilitate the transition, such as changes that lower the cost of compliance" with DTV rules, Powell told reporters last week.

Powell did not address the pending changes specifically but said the new task force will make a priority of issues that must be tackled quickly or can be done with little controversy: "Let's get through the more imminent, doable and fundamental things first."

Presumably, by clearing the decks of such requests, the FCC can focus on controversial matters, such as DTV/cable interoperability, disputes over set-top box standards, and cable carriage requirements for broadcasters' digital channels.

Next month's actions are expected to include the approval of a streamlined waiver-request form that will allow broadcasters to choose from a checklist of obstacles. Big Four network affiliates in top-30 markets have been required to offer DTV since November 1999, but independents, affiliates of smaller networks and smaller-market stations will be able to use the new waiver form if they face financial hardship, zoning disputes or equipment-delivery snags, as well as other obstacles.

The National Association of Broadcasters, the Association for Maximum Service Television and the Association of Local Television Stations all have argued that the FCC will be overwhelmed with a flurry of waiver requests unless it streamlines the applications process.

The FCC also is expected to delay DTV stations' obligation to replicate their analog footprint by Dec. 31, 2004. There's no sense in making stations buy the more expensive antennas and transmitters necessary to duplicate their entire coverage area when so few homes are outfitted to receive DTV right now, the trade groups have argued.

The paucity of DTV viewers also prompted them to seek a delay in the deadline for "maximizing" DTV transmissions. Under FCC rules designed to help low-power TV stations, the FCC said full- power stations must beam digital signals to all parts of their legally permitted coverage area by May 2002 or forever cede any uncovered territory to LPTV outlets currently broadcasting there. The delay is particularly important to the many UHF stations that haven't maximized their analog signals, said NAB attorney Jack Goodman.

The trade groups want the replication and maximization deadlines to be the same and would prefer that no hard date be set. They would prefer simply an FCC decision to re-examine the deadlines when the DTV transition is further along.

Industry sources did not know whether a specific date has been recommended.

Although the requested changes face little formal opposition, some DTV equipment suppliers are questioning whether broadcasters' complaints are an excuse for footdragging.

"Many are being disingenuous to the commission and the public as a whole," said Arnold Chase, executive vice president of Communications Site Management. Some stations, he said, have turned down his offer of DTV transmission space, even as they were complaining to regulators about a lack of tower sites.

FCC officials, however, say they have not heard similar complaints from other tower companies.