DTV delays sought

Some 400 stations expected to ask for six-month extensions of deadline

More than a-third of U.S. TV stations are expected to ask the government's permission to delay completion of digital facilities by the time a window for filing such requests closes today.

As of Feb. 28, the FCC received requests from 179 of the country's 1,100 full-power stations to grant a six-month extension to the May 1 deadline. But nearly 400 are expected to have filed by the end of Monday.

That would be slightly higher than the 32% of the industry predicted by the National Association of Broadcasters in August. Since then, the Sept. 11 attacks and the recession have made a shambles of the ad market and seriously strained the finances of many stations.

Despite the numerous delay requests, there is some good news for government officials trying to keep the transition to DTV on track: The overwhelming number of applicants say they need only a few extra months to complete construction, with most saying they won't need the second, six-month extension permitted by Congress.

"The bottom line is that most of these stations are going to be built this year," said David Donovan, president of DTV trade group Association for Maximum Service Television.

Belo and Clear Channel were among the early requesters and blamed construction problems in several of their markets on equipment delays, hazardous construction conditions due to winter weather, or difficulty in scheduling construction crews. Belo, which is on track with 14 of its stations, asked to delay DTV build-outs in Austin, Texas, and Tucson, Ariz., and for two outlets in Spokane, Wash. Clear Channel asked to delay construction in Albany, N.Y.

John Burgett, Washington attorney for both companies, said most delays are caused by a crunch of last-minute construction. "Everybody's rushing to get this done," he said. "Most want to do it right rather than rush to meet an artificial deadline."

LIN Television will ask for 10 delays among its 29 stations, although eight of those postponements are simply because the FCC has yet to issue construction permits. "In most markets, we're ready to go as soon as we have FCC clearance," said lobbyist Greg Schmidt.

Approximately 160 stations still have not received DTV construction permits, FCC officials said.

Currently 258 stations are broadcasting DTV, according to the NAB.

"You can't just look at the number of extensions to see if there's a big problem, but rather how long a delay people are seeking," Donovan said. "A bunch say they need only a month or two."

A read of the initial applications indicates that most stations are asking for relief because of problems that can be solved easily over time, with few complaints about zoning issues or lack of financing, either of which is harder to resolve and can delay a DTV-facility construction indefinitely.

Despite the positive prognosis for DTV construction, Donovan did not pass on an opportunity to take a dig at the FCC.

If not for uncertainty still clouding the ultimate success of DTV—a problem he blames on the lack of DTV carriage on cable, workable copy-protection standards, and a digital-tuner requirement for new sets—nobody, he said, would doubt stations' enthusiasm for DTV or care if some were seeking build-out delays. "If the FCC had taken steps to accelerate the transition, this wouldn't even be an issue."