Take Two: FCC Releases New Rules For DTV Transition

Most broadcasters still airing analog signals won't be able to pull the plug until at least April 16, must tell the FCC of their plans by March 17, and hold to them, and will have to give viewers a lot more information about antennas and coverage and converter box issues.

The FCC late Friday released its guidelines for stations making the transition to digital between April 16 and the new hard date of June 12.

As first reported here, stations losing at least 2% of analog viewers in the move to the slightly different signal contours of digital will have to inform their audiences of that fact.

The FCC also decided that all stations have to include information about the use of antennas as part of their DTV education campaigns, including that viewers may need additional equipment if a station is changing from a VHF signal to a UHF. Stations must also make channel re-scanning part of their educational message.

As part of the order released Friday, the FCC granted waivers to noncommercial stations who had asked to go earlier than April 16 due to financial hardship. The FCC said those stations can start pulling the plug beginning March 27.

The other thousand of so broadcasters -- 641 stations have already gone all-digital --have until March 17 to tell the FCC when they plan to transition in that April 16-June 12 window. Most major affiliates in major markets have already said they planned to stay on until June 12 after the FCC encouraged stations to do so if they could.

The FCC is requiring that every station that has not yet transitioned to digital file a binding notice of analog termination by that March 17 date. Stations will have to air viewer notifications for at least 30 days before pulling the plug, including the information about antennas and possible signal loss where applicable. Once the stations have filed that notice, they may proceed with their plans without getting a specific individual approval from the commission.

Network affiliates that want to go before June 12 can do so if at least one network affiliate remains on the air in full analog service in the market through that date. If a major network affiliate --ABC, CBS, Fox or NBC -- can't attest to that and still wants to pull the plug early, it can do so as long as at least one of the major affiliates is maintaining an "enhanced nightlight" service of news, public affairs and emergency info, It also has to comply with a number of public-interest conditions, including walk-in DTV help centers, a consumer referral phone number, outreach and education.

As broadcasters had suggested, the FCC will allow stations to pull the plug at any time of day on their final day of service, although they must let the commission know about when that will be. The commission will also not require most stations to continue broadcasting DTV transition information after they have pulled the plug on analog.

The FCC also took broadcasters advice and shortened the mandatory station countdown clocks to 60 days before termination, rather than the original 100. Broadcasters must also air a new, long-form (30-minute), "up-to-date" DTV education video at least once before June 12. That means a show produced before the hard date was moved won't cut it. The videos must contain locally specific information.

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.