NAB 'waivers' on rollout

Warned of a possible 'firestorm' of protest, board decides not to ask FCC for a blanket extension of DTV deadlines

With a little help from a powerful congressman, the NAB board last week decided that small-market TV stations that are going to miss the May 2002 digital conversion deadline should ask the FCC for individual waivers, as opposed to the entire industry asking for a blanket delay.

Although the board had been expected to vote the other way , the decision is in step with the philosophy of new FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who said at the NAB convention in April that he recognized that a number of small-market stations might not make the 2002 deadline. But he also said that he preferred that they ask for a waiver individually as the need arose, rather than a blanket waiver that might remove the incentive for stations to continue to "drive toward the objective."

"The waiver process that exists at the FCC is an opportunity for those TV stations that might not make the deadline," said NAB President Eddie Fritts. "I don't foresee the FCC taking away any [digital] licenses as the result of stations making a good-faith effort."

Board members said they had a "very full discussion," before deciding to let individual stations fend for themselves.

The NAB board's discussion was preceded by a breakfast meeting with House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), who urged struggling broadcasters to seek individual waivers because a blanket request might "set off a firestorm in Washington" because Congress would see the move as proof that broadcasters never intended to make the transition, said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson.

Board members ultimately agreed with Tauzin.

"We didn't want to be in a position where asking for blanket extensions looked like we were slowing down the process," said newly elected TV Board Chairman Paul Karpowicz, who is vice president of LIN Television. "We heard FCC Chairman Michael Powell loud and clear when he told us at the NAB show that it would hard for us to justify blanket waivers."

Tauzin also told the NAB board that by 2006, the date by which broadcasters are expected to give back the analog spectrum, "they better have their ducks in a row," Johnson said. "There's likely to be attempts by Congress between now and then to firm up that deadline. Broadcasters had better pay attention when even their friends are saying they are taking too long."

Meanwhile, public broadcasters last week asked the FCC to try a different formula. America's Public Television Stations, the Center for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting Service suggested that the FCC drop its DTV rollout dates—May 2002 for a commercial stations and May 2003 for non-commercial outlets.

Instead, public stations, commercial stations without major network affiliations in top-30 markets, and commercial outlets in small markets wouldn't go digital until a year after a specific nationwide digital -penetration level was reached.