Get With the DTV Program
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/20/2003 8:00:00 PM
The threat of license revocations appears to be keeping the DTV transition on track. Of the 71 laggard TV stations that failed to justify missing last year's May deadline for building their digital stations, FCC officials say, 55 have made it on the air, and the others have adequately explained their tardiness.
|Source: FCC, as of March 12
|Total commercial DTV channels||1,315|
|Delayed with FCC extension||457|
The earnest efforts are wise, given that the FCC last week reconfirmed plans to strip DTV licenses from stations that fail to construct digital facilities.
Despite the tough policy, no stations face imminent threat of revocation, and the commission appears generally pleased with the pace of DTV rollouts. "Although we find that overall DTV construction is continuing at an acceptable rate," the FCC said, "we must be prepared to deal with stations that do not meet their DTV construction obligation."
Broadcaster Dorothy Brunson, owner of WGTW Philadelphia, considers the FCC hard line unfair. Although her station will avoid repercussions for bringing DTV on line a year late, she thinks other single-station or small-market owners will suffer because they can't afford the expense. "I don't see how this can be justified economically," she said. Aside from the construction costs, DTV adds 40% to operational costs without a corresponding uptick in ad revenue.
The National Association of Broadcasters urged the agency to exercise revocation power sparingly. NAB did not oppose the FCC threat to strip DTV permits but unsuccessfully argued that an administrative hearing should precede any revocation.
"We expect virtually every broadcaster will make a good-faith effort to comply," NAB said in a statement. "We trust the commission will carefully evaluate the specific circumstances of each case before invoking sanctions on any station."
Almost two-thirds of stations on-air with digital are broadcasting at reduced power, which allows them to meet their legal obligation but stunts their coverage.
Lenient FCC rules allow stations to meet their DTV obligation with lower-power broadcasts that don't reach beyond a station's city of license. The commission permitted the scaled-down broadcasts to help stations affordably launch DTV. Turnkey lower-power systems cost as little as $50,000 and transmit as low as 1 kW. Full-power systems cost $3 million or more and may require even small-market stations in mountainous areas to offer 200 kW of power.
There are major drawbacks to lower-power systems. Not only are large parts of a market deprived of digital service, but large signal gaps may occur within the city of license. The FCC forbids network affiliates in top-30 markets to offer low-power signals.
Under the FCC rules, stations denied DTV-extension requests will be admonished and, within 30 days, must outline steps they will take to finish construction and provide an approximate completion date. Extensions are granted for technical problems, zoning disputes and other snags.
Stations not in compliance six months after admonishment will be put on notice that they are liable for forfeiture. One year after initial admonishment, the construction permits of stations still not built out will be considered expired, and the FCC will take "whatever steps necessary" to revoke them and eliminate the channel from the allotment table. Although those stations will be allowed to maintain analog signals until the end of the transition, they will not be automatically permitted to switch to DTV on their old analog channel. Other parties will be permitted to apply for the digital license, too.
Fifty-eight stations are nearing the end of the two six-month extensions that the Media Bureau can grant and are seeking a third extension that can be granted only by a majority of the commissioners. Those denied another extension will be admonished immediately, triggering the revocation process.
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