Community Broadcasters Association petitions court to order DTV converter halt

The Community Broadcasters Association (CBA) March 26 asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to order the FCC to halt the distribution and marketing of digital television (DTV) converter boxes without the ability to let viewers watch analog TV.

In filing its petition, the CBA asked the court to order the FCC to enforce the All Channel Receiver Act (ACRA), which it said requires DTV converter boxes to be able to receive “all frequencies allocated by the FCC to television broadcasting.”

While the nation’s full-power TV stations are required under law to cease analog operation and commence digital transmission in February 2009, low-power television (LPTV), Class A and TV translator stations will continue to transmit in analog. Without the ability to receive analog over-the-air (OTA) signals, the converter boxes will effectively cut the stations off from viewers — especially because few LPTV stations are not carried by cable systems, satellite operators or telcos.

The association’s petition comes after months of meetings and correspondence with DTV stakeholders, the FCC and the NTIA. In the petition, the CBA noted that when the FCC ordered all TV sets and other TV receiving devices to include digital tuners, it “emphatically acknowledged the importance of displaying all programming,…[and] held that the ACRA requirement entails not only that all channels be received but also that all formats, including analog and digital, also be received. The FCC said that ‘[t]he ACRA was intended to ensure that the viewing public has access to receivers which are capable of receiving all broadcast signals. Thus, to suggest that the statutory requirements are somehow satisfied simply where a receiver picks up the frequency but is incapable of displaying the signal in a viewable format strikes us as an absurd reading of the ACRA.’”

Despite its “best efforts,” distribution of converter boxes without analog capability has begun, said Greg Herman, CBA VP. “It is unfortunate that in spite of our best efforts, those who simply want to keep pushing illegal converter boxes on the American public have ignored our many warnings and shown contempt and disregard for the over-the-air viewing audience,” he said.

Following the CBA’s court filing, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) issued a denunciation of the move. “This is an irresponsible lawsuit, as was CBA’s advertising calling the government program a ‘scam,’” said CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro.

“CBA should act in the national interest and either shift to digital or promote the several converter box models with analog pass-through that already provide the solution CBA seeks. Instead, CBA would block the DTV transition, threaten $20 billion in analog auction revenue, waste billions of dollars in sunk investment and force consumers to spend much more to buy converter boxes,” he said.

Responding to Shapiro’s remarks, Herman expressed regret that the CEA chief’s words were “so combative.”

“There is no way that the converter box debacle is CBA's fault, and it is grossly unfair to say otherwise,” Herman said. “CBA was not silent; it pointed out the analog problem to NTIA (the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the federal agency responsible for administering the DTV converter box coupon program) in its comments in the converter box rule making on Sept. 25, 2006, long before any boxes were designed or certified for coupon eligibility.

“It is CEA's members who are responsible for understanding the laws that apply to their products,” he said.

Editor's Note: For more on this issue from the CBA's Greg Herman, see "Petition seeks to ensure access to analog OTA viewers post transition" in this week's Sound Off.