FCC: This Time We Mean It

Dozens of stations 'admonished' for missing digital deadline


Nearly two-thirds of all U.S. commercial television broadcasters missed the May 1 deadline to begin digital broadcasting.

So, the Media Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission, following through with a threat to get tough with the slacking stations, shook its enforcement finger in June and denied more than 70 broadcasters' requests for six-month deadline extensions.

And to the same stations, the FCC gave until Dec. 1 -- six months -- to finish the job.

In most cases, the FCC's main gripe is that the stations did not outline a clear path to digital buildout. In several instances, Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree noted that stations were aware of potential problems, such as tower or equipment issues, months or years ago.

The FCC gave the noncompliant stations 30 days to explain themselves. If they do not begin digital transmission by December, they could be on a road to license forfeiture.

But at least some broadcasters are questioning the FCC's right to begin a schedule of sanctions it announced as "proposed" punishments just a few weeks earlier.

"The idea that they think they should be able to 'admonish' is surprising to lawyers in this industry," said Colby M. May, attorney for Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), a Christian TV system that led the pack of DTV nonbelievers with 20 noncompliant stations.

"We still continue to believe we're in a conundrum," May said. "The industry as a whole is in a conundrum."

He characterized TBN as a nonprofit charity that would rather spend its money on its ministry and good works than on digital equipment. The network has crusaded against the digital transition and urges visitors to its Web site to write Congress protesting the potential imminent end of analog TV.

Nevertheless, he said TBN would comply with the FCC commandment, despite what he called "a forced wasting of money."

TBN could conjure its own financial miracles; it's a member of the Spectrum Clearing Alliance, a group led by Paxson Communications Corp. that hopes to strike deals with other spectrum users, such as mobile-wireless providers, to vacate high-frequency analog channels (52 through 69), before the transition is complete. The stations' plan is to continue broadcasting in analog on the channel assigned to digital TV, and then "flash-cut" to digital when the market makes sense.

May noted, as many broadcasters have, that politics and the government's quest for revenues from auctioning spectrum are trumping market forces in the digital transition.

The FCC letters include some tough language and show frustration at a wide variety of broadcasters' confessions. Stations have pleaded that tower-sharing or construction plans fell through; they have cried that they can't afford the new equipment. In TBN's case, many stations used nearly identical words: "Coordination of the transition to digital has been extremely difficult and final equipment orders are just now being evaluated for placement with delivery to follow."

The FCC countered to several stations that they should have had backup plans in case their schemes didn't work. The commission berated some for providing inadequate financial data. And it pointed out that many have had years to get their stories straight.

Most of the digital deadbeats are in small markets in the South and Midwest, but they include one in Alaska and one in Puerto Rico.

"You were specifically asked É to explain what 'substantial geographical complications' have delayed your construction," the commission barked at KUBD in Ketchikan, Alaska.

Robert Goldstein, attorney for KUBD owner Polarcomm Corp., said he was "disappointed" with the FCC's stance, but said the station will comply -- and with high-definition television, no less. The station hopes to land a deal to broadcast programming from Dallas-based HDTV innovator HDNet, he said. "We're interested in the new technology, and as difficult as it may be, we're going to do it," he said.

After they give the FCC a report in 30 days, noncompliant stations must produce another report in 60 more days, with completion by December barring "extraordinary and compelling circumstances."

If December rolls around and the stations still are not digital, the FCC could levy fines and initiate another six-month period, after which the stations' digital construction permits could be revoked.