The DTV transition began its second phase last week, with most stations taking their cue from the FCC and agreeing to remain on the air in analog until June 12. Amidst the flurry of activity—which included late nights at the FCC, some hand-wringing and a few changed decisions—acting Chairman Michael Copps came away with high marks from many in the industry.
According to the FCC's tally, 927 stations decided to keep their analog signals going until June 12; another 158 said they wanted to go early, most on April 16. With few exceptions, the FCC isn't letting stations make the move any earlier than that.
Those 158 will be asked to self-certify that they can go early. Stations not affiliated with one of the four major networks are good to go. The others will have to verify that one affiliate in their market will deliver an analog signal until June 12 with at least a lifeline service.
Last week's election of a final analog cutoff date was binding—meaning if a station chooses to switch on, say, May 1, it must hold to that unless it decides to remain in analog until June 12, which is acceptable to the FCC. But if the choice is to stick with June 12, a station can't go earlier “unless, essentially, its transmitter blows up,” as one FCC staffer put it.
Dick Wiley, former FCC chairman and partner in Wiley Rein, believes the FCC's order on the second round of analog cutoffs does not square with the flexibility called for in the DTV date-change bill, which made a point of calling for “permissive early termination.” As Wiley puts it: “I think realistically the commission doesn't want anybody to go early unless there is a hardship situation and they make that pretty clear.”
But the commission concluded it had the authority to modify the procedures and not run afoul of the “permissive early termination” portion of the act.
Copps, meanwhile, is earning kudos for his handling of Congress' last-minute switch of the hard date to June 12, a move he supported. “I give acting Chairman Copps an A-plus,” House Telecommunications, Technology & Internet Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) told B&C. “I think he has done a superb job.”
“Frankly, I don't think Chairman Copps has made many mistakes as chairman of the FCC so far,” Wiley adds.
“Copps is doing an excellent job of handling this in terms of implementing what Congress told [the FCC] to do,” adds Howard Liberman, a communications attorney with Drinker Biddle and a former FCC lawyer. “Staffs have been working nights and weekends. Perhaps leadership is making a difference.”
But Liberman thinks Copps is making the best of a situation needlessly complicated by the move of the date. “When I was watching the congressional debate, what the Republicans were saying made more sense to me, which was just to get this over with,” he says.
Liberman is, however, quick to acknowledge that with the DTV coupon program being stuck, “it did give a lot of stations that were going to have problems time to fix them. For example, tower problems that weren't quite done yet. There were stations that weren't going to make it that now will make it.”
A Plus for Noncommercial Stations
Noncommercial stations are undoubtedly happy because the commission has given a waiver to every station that asked for permission to go earlier than April 16. A group of noncoms pled financial hardship and the commission, hearing their plight, decreed that they could switch over starting March 27. PBS stations made up nearly half the 158 stations asking to pull the plug on April 16.
“In a matter of weeks, Chairman Copps took the reins of the FCC and provided the effective leadership necessary to make this historic transition a reality,” says NAB President David Rehr.
NCTA head Kyle McSlarrow happily echoes those sentiments. “The chief difference between Copps [and former Chairman Kevin Martin],” McSlarrow says, “is that [Copps] didn't wait for orders from Congress. He assumed someone had to be the quarterback and be in charge, and he immediately moved into that role. And he did it in a way where he simultaneously involved everybody. He made clear he wanted the FCC to work in concert with NTIA and other stakeholders, and pretty quickly we had real plans hammered out.
“We made more progress with his leadership in a two- or three-week period than we had in the previous year,” McSlarrow continues, adding that “credit also extends to commissioners [Robert] McDowell and [Jonathan] Adelstein as well.”
Cable's principal stake is its coordination of the industry call-center program, though McSlarrow expects the government effort to move to the fore there once DTV outreach money from the stimulus bill is pumped in.
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