APTS Looks at Early Analog Shut-Off

Energy bills are eating up too much money at public TV stations, so the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS) announced it would look into adopting a hard date for shutting off analog signals. While the FCC's target shut-down date is Dec. 31, 2006, stations will not have to shut off analog signals until 85 percent of the audience in their markets can receive digital signals. APTS members may self-impose the '06 deadline.

John Lawson, APTS president and CEO, said that shutting down analog signals will save member stations around $36 million a year, or around 20 percent of federal funding in the form of Community Service Grants. Many public stations are outfitted to the teeth with the latest in digital equipment, purchased with one-time federal DTV-transition grants. Operating budgets are another story. Public stations around the country have come under pressure in the last few years as the state, federal and private funds, used to operate stations, has diminished. Under those circumstances, analog shut-down is starting to look good to APTS members.

According to an online consultation conducted by the association, 88 percent of member stations supported a shut-down hard date, although in exchange for "certain policy concessions," meaning blanket digital must-carry on cable and DBS. Dual must-carry-simultaneous cable carriage of broadcasters' analog and digital signals-is currently under review at the FCC and slated for a decision before year's end. Current must-carry rules require cable carriage of a broadcaster's primary video signal only. Sans analog, the digital signal would logically become the primary signal, but for all the bickering surrounding must-carry, APTS stations are not about to take a chance.

"Any plan for an early return of analog spectrum is dead without guarantees-either negotiated or mandated-that all of our stations' digital signals are carried on cable and direct broadcast satellite systems," Lawson said.

Lawson stressed that the shut-off proposal itself is in the trial-balloon stage. Commercial broadcasters, the public safety community, DTV product vendors, the consumer electronics, PC and wireless industries would all have to be onboard, he said.

"There obviously are many challenges to weigh before proceeding, and I must emphasize that this is the beginning of a process that will involve extensive research at the legislative, regulatory and consumer market levels," he said.