Public TV Mulls Early Analog Giveback

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Non-commercial TV stations are considering shutting off their analog channels as early as 2006, well before current law requires. The Association of Public Television Stations said last week it is examining circumstances under which member stations would agree to a "hard date" for ending analog operations.

Currently, stations don’t have to return analog spectrum to the government until 85% of viewers in their market can receive a digital signal from local stations, a shift that could go years beyond the government’s 2006 target date. John Lawson, APTS president, said it’s possible that analog return dates would be phased in according to market size.
The idea, still in its infancy, must be vetted with APTS stations and is contingent on winning digital must-carry rules for cable and satellite TV. APTS also would require a portion of the proceeds generated by auction of reclaimed analog spectrum to new users be earmarked for production of "compelling" digital content needed to whet viewers’ interest.

Participation by a "critical mass" of commercial broadcasters is also a necessity, as is cooperation of DTV product vendors and the consumer electronics and PC industries, Lawson said.

Commercial broadcasters called the APTS idea "interesting," but said it’s too early to decide whether they can participate. "The marketplace for commercial broadcasters is vastly different than for public TV both in terms of economics and in federal funding," said David Donovan, president of DTV trade group MSTV.

The cable industry is vehemently opposed to mandated multicast carriage, a proposal under consideration by the FCC. The commission is expected to rule on the idea next month.

"There are major advantages for public stations to end analog transmission and embrace a ‘date certain’ for converting to digital transmission only," Lawson said. For starters, public stations would save $36 million a year in electricity costs-almost 20% of the funds distributed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to public stations in fiscal 2003.

On top of that, going digital-only allows public stations to "focus all of our energy and resources on the future, not on a dying analog distribution system," Lawson said.

Even groups seeking to take over analog spectrum, like the wireless industry and the public safety community, should be consulted, Lawson said. APTS stations expressed "serious interest" in completing the digital transition and ending analog transmission in a member survey the group conducted last summer. Fully 88 % participating indicated they would support a hard date in return for carriage and funding guarantees.

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