FCC staff to get tough with DTV permittees

Senior-level staff members in the Media Bureau believe they have little flexibility with regard to future extensions of the deadlines for TV stations to complete construction of digital television facilities.

When the Commission first established procedures for stations to seek extension of the May 1, 2002, DTV construction deadline, it indicated that it would delegate authority to the staff to grant up to two six-month extensions. The full Commission would review any further requests for additional time. As a result, the staff believes it lacks the authority to approve any further extension requests that suggest the completion of construction might extend past the next six months.

Some group owners had hoped to present the Commission with a plan whereby they would construct DTV facilities for stations in sequence, according to a set schedule, without having to undertake the overwhelming expense of constructing facilities for all of the stations at the same time. The staff rejected this plan, however, because the proposed schedule called for some stations to have their DTV facilities completed more than six months after their current extended deadline.

The staff announced that all extension applications had to be filed 60 days in advance of the current extended construction deadline.

The staff further noted the proposal to impose fines upon stations that are not able to complete construction within the next six months. While subject to change, the original thinking on the amount of such a fine was in the neighborhood of $20,000. While this hard-line stance may reveal the Commission's lack of understanding of the real-world problems faced by television stations in today's marketplace, and especially those in smaller markets, broadcasters should be aware of the looming threats facing them.

Recent DTV initiatives

On Aug. 9 the Commission adopted deadlines for the introduction of DTV tuners and initiated a rulemaking to address what copy protection standards should be adopted to protect the producers of digital programming.

DTV tuners

The Commission established July 1, 2007, as the deadline for all television sets with screen sizes 13 inches or greater and all video receiving equipment, including VCRs, DVDs and DVRs (TiVo), to include digital reception capability. To reach this goal, the following schedule was established:

  • Receivers with screen sizes 36 inches and above — 50 percent of units must include DTV tuners effective July 1, 2004; 100 percent of such units must include DTV tuners effective July 1, 2005.
  • Receivers with screen sizes 25 to 35 inches — 50 percent of units must include DTV tuners effective July 1, 2005; 100 percent of such units must include DTV tuners effective July 1, 2006.
  • Receivers with screen sizes 13 to 24 inches — 100 percent of all such units must include DTV tuners effective July 1, 2007.
  • TV interface devices — VCRs, DVD and other players/recorders that receive broadcast television signals — 100 percent of all such units must include DTV tuners effective July 1, 2007.

Copy protection

High quality programming, such as movies, is not likely to be available on DTV until protections are in place that will prevent the programming from being pirated and distributed free on the Internet.

On Aug. 9, the FCC released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to review whether the FCC should enter the fray and implement the “flag” mechanism broadcasters and programmers have been developing. Such a technological flag could be embedded in program material broadcast in the DTV mode, and consumer electronics devices such as VCRs would be programmed to reject programming containing the flag.

Such a plan may speed the development of digital programming, but the Commission questions whether government endorsement of this mechanism is necessary, or if the flag is the appropriate technological solution to the problem. The Commission is also seeking comment on the likely impact of such protections on the public's access to programming, and their ability to utilize current and future digital equipment.

Harry C. Martin is an attorney with Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth PLC, Arlington, VA.

Dateline Oct. 10, 2002, is the due date for electronic filing of Forms 398 (children's programming reports), and also for the placement in stations' public files of their quarterly lists of issues and responsive programs for the quarter ending Sept. 30, 2002.

Send questions and comments to:harry_martin@primediabusiness.com

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