DTV transition

FCC issues rules for stations that plan to shut of analog signals before the new June 12 deadline

Legislation to delay the digital TV transition deadline, originally Feb. 17, will not stop the transition, but it now will proceed under a new set of rules for broadcasters.

The new deadline for shutting off analog transmissions is June 12. Under rules issued yesterday by the Federal Communications Commission, stations that still plan to stop analog broadcasts on Feb. 17 will have to notify the commission of their intentions by Monday, Feb. 9. If they miss that deadline, they will not be able to shut off analog service before March 14.

The FCC has waived some requirements for timely notification to allow stations to move ahead with plans for termination of analog service on Feb. 17, even though that date would become an “early termination” under the new law. But because of other notification requirements, no early terminations of analog signals will be allowed between Feb. 18 and March 13. As of March 14, which is 90 days before the new June 12 deadline, early terminations of analog service can begin again with proper notification to FCC and to viewers.

The transition from traditional analog to digital signals was mandated in the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005, largely to free up parts of the RF spectrum for public safety use. Digital technology is more efficient, allowing more data to be transmitted in narrower bands. Making this spectrum available is seen as crucial for the creation of an interoperable, national public safety network that would allow first responders from different regions to communicate more easily during emergencies, as well as for the development of new commercial wireless services.

Most TV stations now are broadcasting digital signals along with analog signals, although several hundred, mostly in Wilmington, N.C., and Hawaii, which served as testbeds for the transition, have switched off their analog signals early.

Television sets being manufactured now are equipped to receive digital signals, and many households now using cable and satellite TV systems will not be affected by the broadcast transition. But the Nielsen Co. estimated in January that 6.5 million households depending on over-the-air broadcast signals are not prepared for the transition and that television sets in those homes could go dark when the transition occurs.

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps supported the delay because of the number of unprepared households.

“I welcome this delay because it has long been clear to me—and it has become even more clear in the less than two weeks that I have been acting chair — that we were not ready for a nationwide transition on Feb. 17,” he said Feb. 5.

But while moving the deadline, the act “expressly permits television stations to terminate their analog service prior to the new deadline, ‘so long as such prior termination is conducted in accordance with the Federal Communications Commission’s requirements in effect on the date of enactment of this act,’ ” the new FCC rules said.

Copps’ preference is that as many stations as possible delay shutting off analog signals until the June 12 deadline to give viewers more time to prepare, and some have said they will do that.

“I am happy to report that some broadcasters have already stepped up to the plate and expressed their commitments to staying on the air until June 12” with analog signals, Copps said Feb. 5. “These broadcasters are truly serving the public interest by giving real-world meaning to what Congress did yesterday.”

So far, the CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and Telemundo networks have committed to continue broadcasting in both analog and digital on their owned-and-operated stations through June 12, Copps said. In addition, station owners Gannett and Hearst-Argyle have said that the “vast majority” of their stations will maintain an analog signal until June 12.

But because of the expense of maintaining dual broadcasting infrastructures and of complications created by changing schedules that have been in place for months, many stations are expected to want to move ahead with plans for the Feb. 17 transition.

“The Commission’s challenge is to provide opportunities for some stations to end analog broadcasting early without sacrificing the goal of giving consumers additional time to prepare,” the FCC rules say.

FCC already had rules in place governing early termination of analog service, which required 90 days notice to FCC and 60 days notice to viewers. Stations that already have filed notice of intent to shut off service early, that is, before Feb. 17, must reconfirm their intentions to the FCC.

But 90 days early notice now is impossible for stations planning to stick to the Feb. 17 date, so FCC is waiving that requirement under the new rules. It will require stations to file notice of their intentions by Feb. 9, however. Stations must file the new notice even if they have already notified the FCC of their intentions of shutting off analog service on that date.

If FCC thinks shutting off analog service on Feb. 17 is contrary to public interest, it could reconsider the waiver. “In such case, we may require affected stations to submit additional information to explain and justify how their early termination advances the public interest,” the rules say. “Such additional information can include significant economic, technical, contractual and other business reasons that support termination on February 17.”

Stations that are moving ahead with the Feb. 17 transition will have to provide “the equivalent of 30 days worth of ‘viewer notifications,’ regarding the station’s intention to terminate its analog service,” the rule says.

Stations that want to shut off analog service after Feb. 17 but before June 12 will have to wait until 90 days before the new deadline. That new window opens on Mach 13. Under the new rules, stations will have to give both the FCC and viewers 30 days' notice of their intent.

Broadcasters shutting off analog signals on Feb. 17 must give notice to viewers by running a “crawl” message on the screen for seven days before the termination. For the first five days of that period, through Feb. 14, the crawl must be aired five minutes of every hour, and for 10 minutes of every hour on the final two days.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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