Defending their analog lives

Some small stations say FCC plan for prodding DTV delayers is too tough

A trio of TV station owners is asking the FCC to ease proposed sanctions on stations that can't defend their DTV delays.

Brunson Communications, Pollack/Belz Communication and Sunbelt Multimedia, each the owner of a single station, last week complained that the FCC's plan to strip stations of their licenses if they fail to bring digital service on line according to an FCC monitoring process designed for DTV laggards is too harsh.

"The harm that approach would cause vastly outweighs any benefit from bullying them into attempting to offer digital service prematurely," attorney Stuart Nolan Jr. wrote in comments submitted to the FCC on the broadcasters' behalf.

Brunson owns WGTW(TV) Burlington, N.J., which operates on ch. 48 and is in the Philadelphia market. Brunson was denied a request for a six-month waiver to the May 1 deadline for inaugurating DTV service. Pollack/Belz owns KLAX-TV Alexandria, La., and Sunbelt operates KTLM(TV) Rio Grande City, Texas. Both those stations were granted extensions but will have to prove specific "extraordinary and compelling" circumstances to get another.

Although the three owners were the only ones to criticize the FCC's plan for DTV laggards in comments to the commission, a sizeable chunk of smaller broadcasters are likely to face sanctions in the ensuing year if advertising and prospects for DTV viewership don't pick up.

Since the May 1 deadline for all 1,300 commercial broadcasters to begin DTV service, nearly two-thirds have asked for extensions. The FCC rejected 71 of those and granted 772. Of those granted, though, nearly half are expected to be little closer to getting a digital signal on the air at the end of the extension than they are today.

While the FCC's proposed sanction process has not been permanently implemented, it is being carried out on an interim basis until a final version is established. The proposal was developed by the FCC's DTV task force led by Rich Chessen and approved by its four commissioners. Stations that can justify delays based on technical problems, delays in scheduling construction crews, zoning fights or inability to obtain financing are allowed up to two six-month waivers. Those denied waivers will be sent a letter of admonishment and required to report regularly on their progress.

Admonished stations that fail to go digital within six months of the reprimand will be issued a notice of apparent liability for fines and required to meet a series of 30-day construction milestones. If a station then fails to offer a digital signal after a year, the FCC will revoke its construction permit.

The smaller broadcasters complain that financial and other common problems may not meet the FCC's conditions for "extraordinary and compelling" circumstances but are damaging enough nevertheless to obstruct their DTV build-out.

Broadcasters' main trade groups did not criticize the sanctions but did ask that the FCC limit penalties to only stations that have made no "meaningful" effort to get on the air.

NAB and MSTV also asked the FCC for more time for the conversion of satellite stations, which relay the signal of full-service stations to additional, usually small and rural, markets. "DTV operation on satellite stations will not measurably advance the DTV transition," they said, "nor will delayed DTV operation measurably retard the transition."

Like nearly all commenting broadcasters, the trade groups said the FCC does not have authority to strip any license without an administrative hearing. They also asked that any revoked licenses be removed from a market's table of channel allotments to reduce congestion. The Association of Public Television Stations, however, said no allotments should be eliminated among channels reserved for noncommercial broadcasters.

New Life Evangelistic Center, operator of KNLC(TV) Saint Louis and KNLJ(TV) Jefferson City, Mo., said religious broadcasters that rely on donations may have a tough time avoiding sanctions. It asked the FCC to allow churches to delay the build-out at least until the 2006 target date for returning analog spectrum.