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The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 says U.S. analog TV may not be broadcast after December 31, 2006. So why does House Commerce Committee head Joe Barton want new legislation with a "hard date"? It's because the 1997 act has three exceptions.

The first is rarely mentioned. It states that, if an ABC, CBS, Fox, or NBC outlet is legitimately not yet broadcasting digitally by the end of 2006, no station in its market need shut down its analog TV broadcasts. No one expects that.

The third is often mentioned. It's referred to as the "85% rule," though that percentage doesn't appear in the act. It allows analog broadcasts to continue in any market where 15% of households or more do not have digital-TV-reception equipment and also don't subscribe to a cable, satellite, or other service providing signals from each digital station in that market.

There are questions about whether cable systems carry each TV broadcaster in all markets. Fifteen markets have more than 19 stations each, and in each there are stations more than 55 miles from the center. But the FCC could come up with a definition of "market" that eliminates those problems, and the proportion of U.S. households that subscribe to a multichannel service is already around 85% and growing.

That leaves exception number two. Analog TV may continue in any market where "digital-to-analog converter technology is not generally available."

The FCC's "tuner mandate" has dramatically increased the number of digital-TV receivers. It kicked in last July only for 50% of TVs larger than 35-inch, and by year end it had already caused a 150% increase in digital-TV reception devices. But that's receivers, not converters.

In February 2004, KCSM, a public-TV station in San Mateo, CA, found out that its lease on its analog transmission tower would not be renewed. The station had been broadcasting digitally since September 2003 and was in a market that had greater-than-80% cable penetration and 9% local-into-local satellite carriage. So they decided--pending FCC approval--to drop their analog transmissions.

They did everything right. They contacted all of the cable and satellite systems serving their market to ensure continued carriage via their digital broadcasts. They contacted local retailers. They informed viewers of the impending change on the air and via their website. They compiled lists of receivers. They provided reception instructions. They trained staff to field inquiries from viewers. Then, in late May 2004, they pulled the plug.

Viewers whose screens went dark overwhelmed the station with calls. About 10% "would not be consoled." Another 45% wanted to keep watching but didn't want cable, satellite, or new equipment. The remaining 45% wanted to learn what they had to do to keep watching. So the station staff told them.

Then, according to KCSM director of technology Michelle Muller, reporting on the experience at the PBS Technology Conference last month, the station got a different kind of call. A local retailer begged them to stop sending customers over because there was nothing to sell them.

Consider a consumer electronics manufacturer's position. The "tuner mandate" requires TVs to be equipped with digital-reception circuitry, and most households subscribe to cable or satellite and, therefore, don't need a "digital-to-analog converter." So why build and distribute them? The proportion of digital-TV reception provided by converters is steadily dropping.

On February 28, the FCC Media-Bureau staff issued a report indicating that a "natural retirement" analog-TV shutdown date--when all analog sets wear out and are replaced--would be 2032. As for KCSM, they lost 38% of its audience.