DTV Delay Promises Torment for Broadcasters

Congressional Democrats are set to take a second shot at delaying the DTV transition, but some of those closest to the actual work involved with the analog shutoff are dreading the cascade of complications that a delay will cause.

The Senate passed a version of the delay bill again by unanimous consent Thursday, setting the stage for the House to pass it by majority vote in committee and by the full chamber. That could happen as early as Wednesday—the day before an FCC meeting dedicated to the DTV transition.

The delay would be optional for broadcasters, and the tangle of issues associated with a delay could cause many to just turn off their analog transmitters midnight Feb. 17 as planned.

Tower crew schedules, equipment vendors, changing channel assignments, and other spectrum users are among the possible headaches ahead.

“It’s quite problematic,” Don Doty, co-founder of tower Doty Moore Tower Services, said of a potential delay. “There are literally millions of dollars of contracts around the country for people to move at the last minute.”

Work is needed to move DTV antennas to the preferred positions on towers, and some stations are waiting for analog transmissions to cease so their DTV signals can shift to those channels. Public-safety and wireless users may delay plans for rollout and testing; and the costs of the changes will trickle down to other companies, including many small businesses.

“The coordination for the transition had been in place, in some cases, for years,” Doty said. “There are many, many, hundreds of companies affected in a negative way.”

Doty said the costs of the delay to the industries ancillary to broadcasting could be in the millions of dollars. That’s not even counting the power and maintenance costs of keeping analog transmitters on for the extra four months; PBS has reported that the switch will cost $22 million, and other broadcasters have mentioned figures around $10,000 per month for analog operations.

Mark Aitken, director of advanced technology at Sinclair Broadcast Group, notes that there are plenty of issues beyond the power costs. For example, big-ticket orders for equipment are often paid in stages, with the final payment upon installation. But broadcasters delaying their analog shutoff and tower work may also delay equipment delivery, delaying revenue for manufacturers, incurring storage costs. Vendors and crews have other chores they planned to get to after taking care of the Feb. 17 transition. Broadcasters have places in line with vendors and installers.

“It’s a logistical nightmare,” he said.

Also, the change has the potential to confuse millions of viewers who are finally coming around to believe the ongoing threat that full-power analog broadcasting would end at midnight on Feb. 17. With hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ad time already used to highlight that date, there are stacks of PSAs, informational flyers and more that will suddenly become relics of the controversy.

Broadcasters meanwhile are still under FCC order to run PSAs, most featuring the imperiled Feb 17 deadline date.

Other users are wary of the delay. Qualcomm, which has plans to further deploy its MediaFLO mobile TV in various markets across the country, could face millions of dollars in new costs and lost revenues.