About a third of the commercial TV stations surveyed by the NAB will miss the FCC's May 2002 deadline to convert to digital, the association told the FCC last week.
In response to a commission request for some sense of how many stations would be seeking waivers, NAB polled a universe of 1,099 full-power commercial TV stations (not including satellite stations and the 30 or so stations the association could not reach) and got responses from 785 stations. Of those, 31.8% said they would probably miss the deadline, while 68.2% expected to make it, although in Nielsen markets 100 and below, that number dropped to a little less than 50%. So far, 202 stations, including public-TV stations, have flipped the digital switch, according to NAB.
NAB attributes the digital delay to the "economic realities" that stations in smaller markets face and to delays in tower construction and equipment delivery. Still, broadcast executives recognize that stations will need to show the FCC they have put at least some effort toward making the deadline come next May. The FCC already has said that complaints about expensive equipment or a bad economy will not justify granting a waiver.
But, in addition to emphasizing the "glass is two-thirds full" reading of the study, NAB has done a good job of prepping regulators and lawmakers: The news barely registered in official Washington, most of which is shut down for Congress' August recess.
"I'm hardly surprised," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of nonprofit law firm Media Access Project. "The broadcasters' zeal for a prompt transition ended the moment they got the legislative relief [the digital spectrum] they wanted."
Said Ken Johnson, spokesman for House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), "At some point, we'll have to have a hard deadline, but we also anticipated that we would have a lot of problems early in the transition. It's disappointing but not unexpected."
In June, Tauzin encouraged NAB and its TV-station members to ask the FCC individually for deadline extensions, rather than asking for a blanket waiver. Tauzin thought making such a request would seem like the industry was trying to avoid the transition.
The FCC had no response to NAB's report, although NAB and TV-station executives have been briefing the commission about the transition since May.
FCC rules say nothing about penalties that stations would face for missing the deadline but are clear that stations can potentially get up to two six-month delays from the Mass Media Bureau. If they need more time, they will have to apply to the full commission. Stations need to make a good-faith effort to convert if they expect the commission to be flexible, the rules say.
Public broadcasters, by contrast, are assuming that there will be serious penalties for failing to convert by May 2003 (they have an extra year). They say both their digital and their analog licenses are at stake. Public broadcasting attorneys say that, if a public-TV station decides it can't afford to convert and simultaneously run a digital and an analog station, the station will be forced to give its digital license back to the FCC. If a station is not operating digitally when the FCC takes back the analog spectrum, the station will be left without any spectrum at all, the attorneys point out.
NAB put a positive spin on the report, saying that 19 out of 20 American homes will have access to at least one digital TV signal. The study does not say how many DTV stations are operating at power levels sufficient to reach all those homes, though coverage via cable and satellite also counts.
NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts said, "By next May, nearly as many American households will be in the range of broadcast DTV as they are of analog television. Our government needs to address how to get those homes connected to DTV on the receiving end."
The survey also found that many stations that expect to miss the deadline will do so by only a matter of months.
"We believe that economic realities of smaller markets and the stations that serve them should be given prompt attention," Fritts said. "If digital signals are in markets accounting for 19 of 20 households by next May, consumers will need access to sets that can tune them and cable service that delivers them. We challenge the other players to work together to get those 19 of 20 homes connected to DTV on the receiving end."