FCC: Stations Not Allowed To Go All-Digital Feb. 17 Could Hit Triple Digits

Copps says "dislocation and confusion" is occurring but moving hard date was right move

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps would not pin down when the FCC would let the 491 stations wanting to pull the plug on analog Feb. 17 know whether they will be able to or not, but some guidance could be coming out later today, he said.

In his first press conference since taking over as acting chairman Jan. 20, Copps reiterated that the FCC would get back to stations with an answer as soon as it could. "All I can say is as soon as possible," Copps said, pointing out that the commission was working with ridiculous deadlines. He said that everyone had to understand that. "We're down to a matter of days getting the word out to all the stations and getting information in and feedback and guidance out. It is a very trying challenge and we are trying to do that as quickly as possible," he said.

Copps said that "dislocation and confusion" are occurring, but that there would have been more of both if the DTV hard date had not been moved from Feb. 17 to June 12 (which Congress voted to do last week).

Stations should be informing viewers about the Feb. 17 deadline-per the FCC's implementation of the date-change bill-even though some won't be allowed to pull the plug on that date.

But he also said they could finesse the message. "I would hope that stations and newsgathering folks at those stations will be going into this in a little more depth so that people can understand what is going on and that this is a muddied situation and that is a part of the responsibility of the station not just to carry the required notification but to make sure viewers are informed about what is going on and understand the options in more detail."

Copps aide Rick Chessen said that the number of stations in vulnerable markets where the FCC could prohibit them from pulling the plug could be anywhere from low double-digits to triple digits.

Copps said that he was pleased that almost two-thirds of stations planned to remain on in analog.

The FCC is currently vetting those 491 requests to see what stations in vulnerable markets may have to stay on in analog. Copps said those markets would probably be smaller to mid-sized, pointing out that some broadcast groups have stepped up to help insure that most of the big markets were covered. "The larger markets, where we have O&O's, thanks again to the wise decision and the public interest decision of the major networks, there will continue to be analog broadcasting."

Copps said that decision will be based on a number of factors, including how many people in the market are on the DTV-to-analog converter box coupon waiting list, whether all the stations in a market want to go, or whether any analog newscast would remain. "I think if we really know that an area is replete with a lot of minorities, for example, or non-English speaking and seniors and we have some information that there are a lot of people on the converter box waiting list."

Those stations, he said, would come under "special scrutiny" and would have to have compelling reasons to stay on. Those could include contracts related to towers and antennas, he said, but also added that the vetting was still a work in progress.

Chessen said that all the stations in under 20 markets have asked to go on Feb. 17.

The FCC may require one of the stations in each of those markets to stay in analog. But rather than just saying no to stations, the commission may require extra outreach or programming about the transition as something of a quid pro quo for getting to go ahead and pull the plug. "You could have people on the phones, you could have walk-in centers, you could have somebody in the market staying on the air in analog to provide some kind of programming," said Chessen. "Maybe having certain public interest requirements to protect consumers that would adequately protect consumers that would let stations turn off absent a showing of contractual necessity.... If they agree to do certain programming or certain outreach or certain help for consumers that is another thing that is under consideration."

He called the DTV switch the "most demanding consumer technology transition in the history of broadcasting," adding that he had spent his first few weeks trying to fill in the holes left by 20 months of the "happy but mistaken belief that this was going to take care of itself."

The acting chairman said he did not know why President Barack Obama had yet to sign the bill moving the date to June 12, but said "the sooner the better," as far as he was concerned.

Copps said that the FCC had enough funds to get through the Feb. 17 switchover for potentially hundreds of stations, including money for coordinated call center efforts, but he said it did not have enough money to get through June 12. "Between now and June 12 we won't be able to continue the efforts we have been making let alone the significantly enhanced efforts I would like to see without some additional resources. We are counting on getting on some of those resources here if we are going to continue to be asked to do as much as we are doing."

Chessen said it is possible the FCC could set an intermediate date for stations that aren't going digital on Feb. 17 but don't want to wait until June 12. That would be to help the various call centers. But he also said the commission could ask stations when they planned to transition and use that info to help call centers rather than setting a particular date.

There is $90 million in the economic stimulus package that the FCC can tap into.

Copps said he was interested in getting an update on the number of production lines for DTV-to-analog converter boxes that are up and running and what their capacity is going to be. There has been some suggestion from the consumer electronics industry that there could be converter box shortages, particularly if a lot of people reapply for converter box subsidy coupons, as the date-change bill allows.

Copps said that he expects the commission to issue a rulemaking on consumer education for the stations not pulling the plug Feb. 17, and for implementing the analog night-light program.