A Grace Period for DTV Transition?

After Wilmington test, some stations want more time to hang onto analog

Among the takeaways from the DTV transition test in Wilmington, N.C., on Sept. 8 was that there were—surprise, surprise—people who waited until the last minute to hook up their DTV-to-analog converter boxes or adjust their antennas.

According to one of the key players in the test, those and other viewer issues may argue for allowing stations in the rest of the country to keep an analog night-light on past when Congress says they now must turn it off on Feb. 17, 2009.

The FCC and station management say the test showed viewers needed to hook up and test their converter boxes earlier. But the attorney representing the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, Wade Hargrove, who helped set up the Wilmington test, says the FCC and Congress should also consider allowing all TV stations to keep the analog signal on for a month or so after the Feb. 17 cutoff.

"I think the biggest lesson learned out of this is the fact that in Wilmington, there was a safety valve in the event of a public safety hazard, which was certainly underscored with the threat of [Hurricane] Hanna bearing down over the weekend," Hargrove says. "It seems to me that Congress should give serious consideration to stations to continue to broadcast 30 days in analog carrying a slate like the Wilmington stations." He also says they should have the option to come back on with emergency information as well.

Hargrove has an ally in FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a driving force behind the test, who late last week also called for the FCC to find a way to allow broadcasters to extend analog broadcasts for a short period of time after the cutoff.

In the first two days of the Wilmington test, the FCC says it got more than 1,200 calls from viewers directed to the commission by an on-screen graphic on the five participating stations' analog signals. The graphic told viewers why they weren't seeing the programming they expected to find, and what to do about it.

Hargrove concedes that keeping the analog signal might not be feasible for some stations that have to replace their analog antenna with a digital one, but still thinks Congress should cut broadcasters a little slack. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin was not available for comment, but an FCC source said the chairman was open to stations voluntarily cutting off analog early by a couple of weeks, which would achieve a similar end without the problem of violating the statute. The law currently requires the cessation of full-power analog broadcasts by midnight on Feb. 17.

Thom Postema, VP and general manager of WSFX Wilmington, calls Hargrove's solution a "great idea." He cites weather emergencies and procrastinators, as well as issues that might arise in areas of the country with more mountainous terrain.

Some have reservations. Andy Combs, general manager of WWAY Wilmington, says there are people who read instructions and people who don't (and he puts himself in the latter category). Doesn't that argue for giving those people that analog grace period? Not necessarily, he says: "As long as you give people crutches, they are going to tend to lean on them."