FCC Analyzes Options for Ending Analog TV

Last May the FCC requested information on how the DTV transition would impact over-the-air TV viewers, (See RF Report for June 2, 2004.) Last week the FCC issued a report summarizing the responses and analyzing options for reducing the impact of ending analog TV broadcasting on these viewers.
The FCC report Media Bureau Staff Report Concerning Over-The-Air Broadcast Television Viewers examines two ways for ending analog service--simultaneously switching off all analog stations at one time, either nationwide, or in a particular market or phasing out analog gradually.

The "Analog Fade to Black" approach would maintain some level of analog broadcast service to existing analog sets. While this could provide a "lifeline" for news and emergency information for viewers without the ability to receive the digital signals, one problem is deciding which station or stations would be allowed to continue broadcasting in analog. Another problem is that while the selected station or stations might pick up some additional audience by being the only analog service, the station would incur the extra cost of maintaining an analog transmission facility, which would impact the economic viability of the service. Loss of spectrum to these analog transmissions is also a concern.

Another way to implement the "fade to black" transition would be what the FCC calls the "700 MHz Reclamation" approach. This would clear stations from the 700 MHz band (channels 52-69) first, starting with those stations on channels 60-69. The approach raised basic fairness issues. First there would be the greater hardship on the stations on channels 52-69, including the loss of their analog revenue streams. Second would be the hardship imposed on viewers of these stations. The FCC notes that these higher channels "often provide Spanish-language, religious, educational or other niche programming."

Fairness issues aren't the only problem with the "700 MHz Reclamation" approach. It could lead to the loss of a popular analog service from one of the four major networks, either because a station's analog operation was on channels 52-69 or because a station's digital facility was on channels 52-69 and would displace its in-core analog channel. In some markets, it could be difficult or impossible to find in-core spectrum where a station displaced from channels 52-69 could operate without receiving or causing undue interference.

In its summary, the FCC outlined the options described above and presented six approaches:

1) A near-term, nationwide date certain for the termination of all-analog service (Dec. 31, 2006).

2) A slightly later nationwide date certain (e.g., Jan.1, 2009), either pursuant to a statutory change establishing a date certain or as contemplated by the transition plan developed by the Media Bureau at the direction of Chairman Powell (aka the Ferree Plan).

3) The current market-by-market statutory test (the 85 percent test), 102 relying solely upon consumer purchase of digital reception equipment to reach the statutory threshold, for example not counting MVPD households towards the statutory threshold.

4) An analog lifeline fade-to-black service continues for some period after the switch-over date (in conjunction with any of the options described above).

5) 700 MHz reclamation fade-to-black approach is adopted e.g., channels 60-69 reclaimed in 2007, channels 52-59 reclaimed in 2009, and all analog service terminated on channels 2-51 in 2012.

6) No analog switch-off until all analog-only equipment is retired naturally.
In the Media Bureau Staff Report Concerning Over-The-Air Broadcast Television Viewers, the FCC lists the advantages and disadvantages of each of the approaches. Reviewing the lists, option 2 with the Jan. 1, 2009 date certain for ending analog broadcasting seems to be the preferred approach, followed by option 5, with the disadvantages being viewers "could lose popular and/or unique programming" and "stations currently operating on channels 52-69 will be disproportionately burdened."

The FCC Report was issued as Congress considers setting a hard date for ending analog TV. It is clear the groups that commented on the FCC Public Notice and the Commission itself put a lot of effort into it. It covers comments and surveys from consumer electronics manufacturers, broadcasters and several groups interested in clearing broadcasters from the 700 MHz spectrum as soon as possible, As such, it should be a useful guide for Congress to use in planning changes to the existing DTV transition plan.

For additional information on the report, including information on current over-the-air TV use, see the TV Technology News Bytes article OTA Culture Evades Pigeonholing.