Powell Makes Colleagues Wait on DTV


Will Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell finally unveil the long-awaited plan to speed the transition to all-digital TV to fellow commissioners this week?

Agency protocol requires him to present the plan to them by Thursday so they can prepare for a vote in time for the next open meeting Feb. 10. At press time, however, colleagues were clueless about his intentions.

Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree told reporters last week his staff has wrapped up the draft and the only obstacle was getting Powell’s OK.

“We could present it in a matter of days,” he said. An FCC spokesman would not comment and a Powell aide didn’t return phone calls.

The commissioners, and the rest of the TV industry for that matter, want to know whether they will be asked to vote solely on a plan to accelerate the all-digital deadline to 2009 or whether they also will be asked to approve other controversial measures such as requiring cable operators to carry each of the six or so channels local TV stations will be able to squeeze into their digital allotments.

Ferree said he could include a carriage recommendation in the plan or offer one separately later.

The DTV plan, in the works for a year, would require broadcasters to go all-digital and return their old analog channels to the government by 2009, years sooner than they would otherwise be required to. The plan works by measuring very liberally how many American are receiving digital signals from their local TV stations. The 1997 DTV law requires stations to return analog channels when 85% of viewers in their market are equipped to receive local DTV programming.

Under the measurement to be recommended by Ferree, nearly all cable customers would be counted toward the 85% level, even if they don’t own a DTV set or subscribe to a cable operator’s digital programming tier. That’s because the FCC would count any cable customer as “digitally served” if they are receiving a digital station’s signal that the cable operator has downconverted to an analog format.

Employing that standard of who’s receiving a "digital" signal would make it possible for most markets to reach the 85% penetration test almost immediately. If the FCC counted only viewers with DTV sets or digital cable tiers, reaching the 85% trigger could take a half-decade or more.

The FCC is eager to end the DTV switch and turn over reclaimed TV channels to local emergency departments and auction others to wireless companies.