The Community Broadcasters Association said Wednesday that it was filing a court action (a writ of mandamus) in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit against the Federal Communications Commission to prevent "the marketing of DTV converter boxes that block analog signals."
That would be the vast majority of the boxes certified for the government's $40 coupon subsidies. Those boxes cannot have an analog tuner per the government's specifications, and most do not pass through analog signals.
Why is the CBA going to court? "To protect the interests and business of all low-power and class-A [low-power] TV stations that specialize in localism," CBA executive director Amy Brown said.
While it is the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that authorized DTV-to-analog converter boxes without analog receivers and without requiring that they pass through analog signals, the FCC is in charge of the DTV process, Brown said, and it gave the NTIA the authority to certify boxes that the CBA said violate the FCC's all-channel receiver act.
That's a 1962 law that authorized the FCC to mandate that "all television receivers shipped in interstate commerce, or imported into the United States, for sale or resale to the public be capable of receiving all channels allocated to television broadcasting."
The CBA has been calling on the FCC to require converter-box manufacturers to make boxes that receive analog signals, as well as digital signals, pointing out that thousands of low-power and translator stations, including some network affiliates and numerous Spanish-language stations, will not be converting to digital in February 2009.
The CBA also wants DTV-education campaigns not to shorthand their message by saying that all analog broadcasting will end in February 2009.
The National Association of Broadcasters launched a Web site this month, LPTVAnswers.com, to provide information on how viewers can continue to receive those signals after the Feb. 17, 2009, transition to digital. But the NAB has also been critical of the CBA, with NAB president David Rehr saying last month, "I find it unfortunate that, as the NAB and others are attempting to help address and solve the problem facing LPTV viewers, the CBA lashes out with threats rather than working on solutions."
The CBA asked the FCC last fall to rule that converter boxes without analog tuners don't comply with the act, but it said, "Up to this point, the FCC has not issued a responsive order."
“We have done all we can to work with the broadcasting, manufacturing and retailing industries," CBA president Ron Bruno said in announcing the court action. "We are simply not convinced that they are willing to do what is necessary to properly educate the public and provide workable solutions for the average, over-the-air viewer ... Converter boxes that block our analog LPTV signals will confuse viewers and significantly decrease LPTV viewership."
Manufacturers were quick to respond.
“CEA is amazed that this group which stood silently while broadcasters, the electronics industry and government successfully implemented the DTV transition is now trying an 11th hour litigation strategy to freeze the entire nation in analog," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association. "Now, as cover for its refusal to shift to DTV, CBA wants to impose new costs on millions of Americans who do not rely on or use their service.
"This is an irresponsible lawsuit, as was CBA’s advertising calling the government program a "scam". CBA should act in the national interest and either shift to digital or promote the several converter box models with analog pass-through that already provide the solution CBA seeks. Instead, CBA would block the DTV transition, threaten $20 billion in analog auction revenue, waste billions of dollars in sunk investment and force consumers to spend much more to buy converter boxes."
An FCC spokeswoman had no comment..