Broadcasters Ponder Analog Tests

FCC's Adelstein proposes short-term cut-offs, government involvement

The good news, according to FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, is that stations in Las Vegas and Honolulu have already conducted simulated short-term tests of the analog TV cut-off. The better news, he believes, is that other broadcasters, taking the lead of 11 stations in Orlando, are looking to set up their own tests.

What's additionally encouraging, according to Adelstein, is that some stations could begin these tests before Sept. 8, when pioneer stations in Wilmington, N.C., cut off their analog signals and go all-digital, helping smooth the transition months before the Feb. 17, 2009, analog turnoff date.

“We should support local broadcasters in conducting these soft analog shut-off exercises because we couldn't get other folks to step up and be willing to do what Wilmington did,” Adelstein told B&C.

Adelstein also told B&C that he planned to talk with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and fellow commissioners about an FCC role in helping facilitate the additional early testing.

At presstime, a spokesman for the chairman said they had yet to have that discussion. The chairman had no comment on the proposal, first reported on, but when asked at a recent press conference about such brief tests, Martin said he believed the Wilmington test would be far more effective at gauging the real-world effects of the analog shut-off.

Adelstein had talked with his fellow Democratic commissioner, Michael Copps, who said he backed the proposal. “I'm still hopeful that we can conduct more full-scale test markets like Wilmington,” Copps added. “Short of that, there are many tests we can and should be running to make this transition as smooth as possible for consumers.”

In addition to various tests at different times, Adelstein says there could be a national, coordinated turn-off-the-analog moment closer to the real Feb. 17 cut-off date. “Let's see what we glean from the communities willing to conduct this exercise,” he says. In addition to the information gained, Adelstein believes the FCC could generate some of the “earned media” about the DTV transition that comes from news coverage.

Adelstein has had discussions at the staff level with both the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV); officials he spoke to were amenable to teaming with the FCC and state broadcast associations to conduct more short-term tests, though the boards of both would have to make the final decisions.

The FCC's participation in the voluntary testing, Adelstein says, would be to help come up with some “best practices” so each market isn't reinventing the wheel.

MSTV President David Donovan says the proposal is “certainly worth exploring,” adding that it “may yield some valuable consumer information in terms of readiness.” And he likes the idea of getting that information “without actually having to turn off any analog signals.”

“We're talking to a lot of FCC commissioners about a lot of things,” says NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. “We have supported the idea of some of these short-term tests because we think they can be particularly useful, but beyond that we are continuing the dialog on DTV issues with all of the commissioners.”

Adelstein has been vocal in his concerns about the FCC putting all of its DTV eggs in the Wilmington basket. “The experimenter is going to affect the outcome of the experiment if we put in disproportionate resources that are not reflective of what we do in other communities around the country,” he says.

The Wilmington test was spearheaded by Martin and Copps. The NAB, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Adelstein, and Martin's fellow Republican commissioners were not involved in the planning of the test before its surprise announcement, according to various industry and FCC sources. Adelstein had no comment on how much notice he did or didn't have.

But from the outset, Adelstein has argued that more testing is needed in areas with different population densities and terrain, and says he thinks the short-term tests could help fill the bill as part of the overall coordinated DTV effort he has long pushed for—one which he says is still lacking.