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FCC Puts Broadcasters on the Clock

Attention broadcasters: The ball is now back in your court. And the shot clock is winding down quickly.

Moving swiftly after the U.S. House and Senate approved a bill that postpones the digital transition for four months, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has given full-power broadcasters until Monday (Feb. 9) to notify the agency if they plan to terminate analog service on or after Feb. 17, 2009 -- the original deadline.

In an effort to give consumers more time to prepare and to fix significant funding issues linked to the government-subsidized converter box coupon program, the freshly approved DTV Delay Act moves the "hard" transition to June 12. As a compromise, broadcasters are allowed to make the switch between February 17 and June 12. (See House Approves DTV Delay .)

Well, sort of. For some stations, the option of switching on February 17 may be moot. That's because the FCC has reserved the power to deny such requests if switching on the original transition date is found to be "contrary to the public interest" -- an ambiguous classification that the FCC failed to explain in much detail.

During Thursday's open meeting, FCC Acting Chairman Michael J. Copps reiterated his relief about the delay, noting "that we are not ready for a nationwide transition on February 17." But he also acknowledged that, even with the delay, the "transition won't be seamless." Earlier this week, he told Congress that 1,089 full-power stations, roughly 61 percent of the total, were ready for the original switchover date.

Although many broadcasters are prepared to go on February 17, it is quite clear that Copps prefers that they retain analog until June 12. He said several major broadcasters, including ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, have agreed to postpone the switch of their owned-and-operated stations until the new hard deadline. "I encourage other broadcasters to join them," he said.

Others on the staff agreed that a relatively uniform transition is best and would help to prevent further consumer confusion.

"The worst-case scenario would be a disorderly 'wild, wild west' scenario, where stations are converting virtually every day or hour in a given market," warned FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.

Fellow FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell added a dose of realism to the coming transmission. Even with a delay, "many consumers will be left behind," he said. "Our mission is to ensure that number is as small as possible."

On Thursday, The Nielsen Co. reported that 5.8 million U.S. homes still aren't prepared for the switch. However, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) called that figure "inflated" because it does not account for consumers who have not installed converter boxes yet or have coupons in-hand but have not redeemed them. According to NAB, more than 10 million coupons are active but not yet redeemed. Under the government program, households are allowed to request up to two $40 coupons to help offset the cost of over-the-air converter boxes.

No matter when stations switch, the FCC is also encouraging them to adhere to an "Analog Nightlight" program whereby they keep their analog broadcast up to provide public safety and DTV transmission information. The FCC is urging stations to run the "Nightlight" for a minimum of two weeks after terminating "normal" analog programming.

Because some stations will switch on Feb. 17 and others will do so at a later date, the FCC also pressed broadcasters to relay their choices and coordinate those efforts with cable operators, satellite TV operators, and other multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs), which also include telcos.

Such coordination is important because most operators are on the hook to deliver all "must-carry" TV stations in analog and digital format after the transition. MVPDs that offer all-digital services and provide a way for all customers to view those signals (usually via digital set-tops and receivers) aren't burdened by the dual must-carry rule. (See FCC OKs Dual TV Carriage Rules.)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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