More power to you, big affils

FCC nixes special temporary authority permits, tells DTV stations to power up

Making good on a pledge to force big-market affiliates to fulfill their DTV obligations, the FCC has ordered 16 stations to begin offering full-power digital transmissions rather than cost-saving reduced-power transmissions.

The FCC's crackdown, however, will not affect the roughly 233 stations that are either located outside top-30 markets or not affiliated with Big Four networks. Those smaller stations continue to have permission for lower-power transmissions.

Reduced-power DTV transmissions were authorized in November 2001 for most TV stations, which were required to begin digital broadcasts in May. The move was intended to give cash-strapped smaller-market stations a way to go digital without the huge energy and construction expenses of a full-power station. Although roughly two-thirds of the country's 1,300 stations failed to meet the May DTV deadline, many of those that did comply have relied on low-cost, low-power "turnkey" systems shaving millions off the cost of a DTV launch.

Big-market stations also could use a break on energy costs, said Dick Warsinske, GM at KOMO-TV Seattle, one of the stations ordered to beef up transmissions. "We're going to spend $2,000 to $2,500 more a month on electric bills when the difference in coverage area will be insignificant."

Industry experts, however, say the issue isn't coverage-area size but signal reliability. At lower power levels, even those close to a transmitter may have trouble receiving signals without large outdoor antennas.

Top-30–market affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox have been required to offer digital signals since at least November 1999 and were not explicitly given authority for the reduced-energy broadcasts in November. In DTV rule revisions in May, the FCC clarified that big-market affiliates would not be permitted the low-power option. But 16 of them were operating under special temporary authority (STA) permits that did allow reduced-power transmission. Those permits began expiring this year, and, last month, the FCC issued each a letter ordering it to begin full-power broadcasts in August.

Nine of the stations are owned by Gannett or Belo, which have agreed to ramp up to full power but have asked the FCC for more time. "We're not arguing with the requirement, but we're asking to have until Jan. 1," said Marnie Sarver, the Wiley, Rein & Fielding attorney representing both station groups.

Other affected stations: WUSA(TV) Washington, KHOU-TV Houston, KFMB-TV San Diego, WHDH-TV Boston, KRON-TV San Francisco, WOFL(TV) Orlando, KPHO-TV Phoenix, KPNX-TV Phoenix, KGW-TV Portland, Ore., KMOV-TV St. Louis, KSDK(TV) St. Louis, WTSP(TV) St. Petersburg, Fla., KARE(TV) Minneapolis, and KXTV(TV) Sacramento, Calif.

Three stations eligible to remain at low power were ordered to up energy levels because they have constructed full-power facilities: WJXT(TV) Jacksonville, Fla., KPTV(TV) Portland, Ore., and WLMT(TV), Memphis, Tenn. They are expected to appeal.