Running out of time

NAB plans to petition FCC for more time to complete digital signal roll-out

The NAB board next week is expected officially to ask the FCC to extend the May 2002 build-out deadline for TV stations in small markets, sources say.

"I would not be surprised if the board took some action regarding the 2002 deadline," says NAB Joint Board Chairman Jim Yager. The NAB holds its annual summer board meeting in Washington next week.

As of May 15, 2001, 195 TV stations are broadcasting in digital in 65 markets, including stations in markets as small as Salisbury, Md., market 162 out of 211. But the FCC counts a total of 1,288 commercial TV stations, and the deadline dictates they all must be broadcasting digitally by May 2002.

"We're going to do it; we just need a little more time," says Cullie Tarleton, senior vice president at Bahakel Communications. "There's nothing magical about that 2002 date." He would like the FCC to extend the deadline for one year for stations in markets 75 through 99, two years for stations in markets 100 and up.

The conversion to digital is much more expensive for stations in small markets because it costs them as much to convert as stations in big markets—anywhere between $2 million and $4 million—but with much smaller profit margins to bankroll the switch. There also is a shortage of equipment, particularly of digital towers, and of crews to build them.

"Even if our feet are held to the fire on the 2002 date, I doubt seriously there are enough crews in the country to accommodate all those needs," Tarleton says. He also points out that all his stations have placed orders for the necessary equipment, such as transmitters, but that equipment makers are going to have a tough time filling those orders by the deadline.

Broadcasters have been hinting for the past several months that it will be impossible for all stations to be airing digitally by 2002.

Washington won't be surprised by NAB's request. FCC Chairman Michael Powell acknowledged at April's NAB convention that delays are to be expected but hasn't been willing to say he'll waive the deadline. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) said months ago that it's a "damn certainty" broadcasters will miss the deadline.

Digital television issues will probably take up the bulk of broadcasters' time in Washington next week, including digital must-carry, cable compatibility and consumer acceptance of digital television, Yager says.

"There has to be some kind of plan to get the digital signals being transmitted by digital broadcast stations on to cable," he stresses. "Cable is the gatekeeper to approximately two-thirds of viewers in America. If the FCC does not want to do it, then we need congressional support to get it done."

So far, the FCC has refused to guarantee cable carriage for digital broadcasters, saying only that the law requires cable operators to carry one TV signal per station, analog or digital.

Broadcasters also are asking Congress for legislation that would require TV-set makers to include digital TV tuners in every new set sold so consumers in all markets are ready to receive high-definition programming as soon as the networks make it widely available.