NAB Pushes DTV 'Flex Time'

Says calendar dates should give way to penetration figures

Broadcasters want more time to meet some of their critical DTV build-out obligations. In meetings with FCC officials, including Commissioners Kathleen Abernathy and Jonathan Adelstein and DTV task force chief Rick Chessen, the National Association of Broadcasters pitched the idea of delaying deadlines for expanding their digital programming lineup and boosting signal strength.

Beginning April 1, stations will be required to simulcast in digital at least half the time they offer an analog signal. That will increase to 75 percent in 2004 and 100 percent in 2005.

Instead of relying on calendar deadlines, the NAB is urging that DTV service mandates be triggered by DTV set penetration, as is the spectrum giveback—85% of TV households capable of receiving broadcasters' digital signals.

Penetration trigger

"Rather than set an arbitrary date that would impose significant costs on the industry," said Jack Goodman, NAB regulatory attorney, "broadcasters' obligations should be tied to viewers' ability to watch."

Set penetration also should trigger stations' obligation to reach their entire coverage areas rather than their main city of license, NAB said.

In November 2001, the FCC revised some DTV build-out rules in its first biennial review of the digital transition. The second review is currently being drafted and is expected to be issued during the first quarter of this year.

As part of the first review, the FCC deferred a 2002 deadline for constructing transmission facilities capable of reaching a station's maximized coverage area and permitted them to build cheaper, lower-power facilities that shaved hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars off initial construction costs.

Also deferred was each station's Dec. 31, 2004, deadline for duplicating existing analog coverage area.

Stations that don't meet coverage-area obligations can lose their interference protections in unreached areas. After deferring coverage-area obligations, the FCC said new deadlines would be considered in the 2003 review.

In addition to the delay of simulcasting and coverage area deadlines, NAB wants the FCC to scrap a calendar deadline for stations' selection of permanent digital channels.

FCC officials said the NAB's latest appeals were getting serious consideration at the commission, although no recommendation has yet been sent to the commissioners. In addition to the biennial review, the FCC also is trying to break the DTV transition free of a handful of longstanding snags.

Agreement needed

First, the commission must approve an agreement struck between TV set makers and the cable industry over "plug-and-play" sets that will allow DTV sets to work with cable without requiring customers to lease set-top boxes from the local cable franchise. Fourteen set makers and seven MSOs signed an agreement two weeks ago that is expected to make plug-and-play sets available in 2004.

The FCC also is pressing broadcasters and the cable industry to reach a deal on stations' digital cable-carriage rights.

Industry leaders met in New York City at FCC Chairman Michael Powell's request to discuss chances for a deal. Powell, who says he's skeptical about the constitutionality of new carriage rules, would like to head off the need for such a mandate.

At least two other commissioners are said to be eager to mandate carriage for any of the multiple DTV channels a station is capable of offering, as long as the over-the-air signals remain free to viewers.

Big Pow-Wow

Attending the meeting, industry sources say, were NAB President Eddie Fritts, National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Robert Sachs, NCTA Chairman Michael Wilner, Hearst-Argyle Chief Executive David Barrett, Belo Television Group President John Sander, ABC Station Group President Walter Liss, Comcast President Brian Roberts and Maximum Service Television President David Donovan.

The meeting established topics for future talks, but the group has not yet set a date for a second get-together. Despite the success of the plug-and-play negotiations, sources question whether an intra-industry carriage deal is as likely. Broadcasters, who appear to have the upper hand at the FCC, will be less likely to make concessions to cable and may prefer to take their chances with the commission.

Also under FCC examination is the broadcast industry and Hollywood's preferred copy-protection method for over-air TV, the "broadcast flag."

FCC officials aren't sure whether they have authority to impose the regime, and the technology is opposed by consumer advocates, the computer and consumer electronics industries.