FCC Set To Lay Down Law to DTV Laggards

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Another batch of TV-station owners will be taken to the FCC woodshed this week for failing to build DTV facilities. At their monthly meeting Thursday, FCC commissioners will vote on roughly 150 requests for a third six-month waiver of the deadline for launching DTV. All commercial broadcasters were required to have been converted since May 2002.

Although the majority of requests will be approved, the FCC is expected to turn down a significant number. Stations told "no" will be admonished by the FCC and required to submit plans within 30 days.

By turning down extension requests at a public meeting, the FCC is seen as trying to send a strong message to foot-dragging broadcasters that reprieves will be granted for only the most serious problems.

Given that 1,035 of 1,300 commercial stations are already on the air, few voiced sympathy for the laggards, especially those claiming they can't afford the construction. "If you can't afford it, get out of broadcasting," said one Washington attorney.

The get-tough policy is no doubt bolstered by the FCC's admonishing 71 stations that requested a second extension in April. All are now on their air with DTV broadcasts, although the vast majority rely on lower-power transmission covering their community of license but not their maximum signal range.

Stations denied a third extension and those not in compliance in six months will be liable for a fine. Six months after that, and they could lose their licenses.

Of the 1,300 stations required to go digital by May 2002, the FCC Media Bureau initially granted extensions to 772. Extensions were granted to stations proving that zoning disputes, equipment delays, interference problems and lack of financing prevented them from building. The bureau was permitted to grant only two extensions. The third must be approved with three votes of the commissioners.

Stations near the Canadian border have interference problems. New York's WNBC(TV) lost its transmitter site with the World Trade Center tragedy; Denver stations are locked in a zoning battle. The FCC will likely be lenient with them. Stations claiming economic hardship may have a tougher haul. Many of the 71 admonished in April claimed lack of financing yet managed to get on the air.

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