FCC Clear as Mud on DTV Chart Mistake

Failing to properly correct an important station list causes confusion and concern

The FCC under acting Chairman Michael Copps has launched an effort to boost minority station ownership. The same commission has also constantly reminded stations that “inadvertence”—as in making a mistake—is not an acceptable excuse, punctuating its point by citing and even fining stations for various infractions.

Such zero tolerance, however, clearly does not apply to the FCC itself. DuJuan McCoy, an African-American businessman who is buying seven TV stations, pending FCC approval, sought help last week from a rather unhelpful commission over its own mistake. The FCC had incorrectly put the station group's Fox affiliate, KXVA Abilene, on a chart of stations supposedly going dark on June 12, the date of the DTV transition.

After a link to the list was published at www.broadcastingcable.com, the mistake had nervous advertisers calling the station, leading its general manager to call B&C for help. McCoy's lawyers phoned the FCC for a correction.

The FCC didn't just release the list of stations supposedly going dark; it put a spotlight on it. Eloise Gore, associate bureau chief of the FCC's Media Bureau, said at a public DTV briefing that “unfortunately, there are 35 stations expected to be dark for some period after June 12.” That prompted concerned comments from Copps and Commissioner Robert McDowell.

Deafening silence

Those 35 stations were the subject of follow-up questions in a press conference, including a request for the identity of the stations and owners, which the FCC released in an online chart later that day, June 3. While KXVA was identified as “silent,” it was far from it.

Not only shouldn't the station have been on the list, it had actually transitioned to all-digital on Feb. 17, the FCC's mandated original DTV transition date. And it is currently broadcasting in HD, which is not required but encouraged since those sharp pictures are the big value-add of making the switch.

What did the FCC do once it realized its mistake? A better question would be what it failed to do—as in issue an e-mail or place a notice prominently on its homepage pointing out that it had put the station on the list in error.

(In fact, a handful of other stations on the list should have been taken off for various reasons. These included a station that no longer had an analog license, and a couple that had fixed technical problems that originally caused them to inform the FCC that they were not expecting to broadcast in digital on June 12.)

Instead, the commission effectively buried the mistake by re-releasing a corrected chart without advertising that the original had been updated—beyond informing B&C that it had done so.

Retrieving the revised chart meant clicking on an “Audio/Video” link on the FCC homepage, then clicking on a link called “Panelist Statements,” followed by a link reading “Attachment (Revised 6/5/09)” under Gore's testimony. Even after so circuitous a route, the FCC listed only the new chart, with no details of the revision. That required clicking on a separate “Addendum” link that still offered incomplete information, including no mention of KXVA.

It's in there somewhere

But why not make the KXVA correction prominent? “The information is there, and the owner is free to show people,” says an FCC spokesman. “Sometimes it can create more problems to bring it up again. We apologize for the error. Anyone who wants to see it can see it.” Perhaps, but only if they know enough to look.

McCoy was in Washington last week at the National Association of Broadcasters' Service to America summit to talk about the issue of broadcast diversity and ownership. He also cited the help he had gotten on the way to buying the seven stations—including KXVA, which would become the only African-American-owned Fox affiliate in the country, he pointed out.

Ironically, the FCC's mistake affecting a Fox affiliate came at about the same time it was releasing an order fining another Fox station for mistakenly forgetting to renew an uplink license for one of its ENG news trucks. The commission fined the station $12,800 in part because Fox is a “big company”—in the FCC's own words—and despite conceding that Fox had voluntarily disclosed the violation and had taken corrective action even before the FCC initiated an inquiry.

It is not surprising that the commission made its mistake, given all the data being compiled in the rush to assemble a collection of moving pieces as last week's DTV hard date approached. But it is far from clear why the commission buried the mistake and issued a vague correction that not only didn't clear up the issue, but seemed to compound the infraction.

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