NAB Will Commit to DTV Deadline

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The broadcast industry for the first time is offering to commit to a hard deadline for completing the switch to all-digital operation.

The most recent groups of stations to sign on to the idea are associations representing CBS and NBC affiliates, who notified the FCC Thursday.

The commitment to a set specific deadline was first offered to the FCC in an Oct. 29 filing by the NAB, ABC O&Os, and 17 major TV station groups including Belo, LIN, Emmis, Hearst-Argyle, Tribune Gannet and Media General.

No date was actually suggested, but the broadcasters said they will “work with Congress and regulators to develop a specific DTV transition plan in the coming months that will bring an orderly end to the transition.”

The broadcasters’ offer comes with big caveats, however.

First, they insist that the FCC drop the major tenet of the so-called “Ferree plan.” Named after FCC Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree, the plan being drawn up by agency staff aims to accelerate the DTV transition by counting nearly all cable subscribers as receiving local DTV stations, even if some of those viewers are receiving the stations’ digital programming after cable operators convert them to an analog format.

The FCC appears willing to count these analog-delivered signals as “digital” because the DTV transition could take a decade or more to finish if the government waits until all cable customers are capable of viewing a true digital picture.

The 1997 DTV law states that no broadcaster must return analog channels until 85% of viewers in a market are equipped to receive local DTV channels. By counting cable “down converted” customers, the 85% trigger could be reached almost immediately, although the FCC says it will wait until 2009 to declared the transition complete.

Finishing the DTV transition is important because the government wants to reclaim broadcasters analog channels and hand them over to local public safety departments or auction them to spectrum-hungry wireless companies.

Broadcasters say counting cable “down converted” digital signals towards the 85% trigger will let cable operators drag their feet in offering true digital pictures to their customers.

Other conditions broadcasters demand include cable carriage rights for every digital multicast channel they offer free over the air and the delay of an FCC plan to let Wi-Fi and other unlicensed communications devices operate on vacant TV channels until after the DTV transition is complete.

The industry also asked that any hard DTV completion date exempt broadcasters facing technical problems that prevent them from going digital.

In New York City, for example, stations’ DTV facilities were destroyed in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks and stations have not launched digital service from an alternative site.

The FCC has not commented on the broadcasters’ latest overture.

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