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FCC Transition Rules Emphasize 'Public Interest'

New rules issued late last week by the FCC targeting the last leg of the DTV transition are designed to ensure that the public is adequately informed about signal coverage and converter box availability and setup.

The new rules will "provide an analog lifeline of vital news, public affairs and emergency broadcasts to consumers who need more time for the switch," the commission said. The goal is to ensure an orderly transition from analog to digital transmissions, and the new edicts are based on "lessons learned" during and shortly after the Feb. 17 partial DTV switch by the nation’s broadcasters.

One of the provisions strengthens requirements for those major network (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) affiliates considering terminating analog service prior to the June 12 extension to ensure that remaining analog viewers in their markets will not be left without some sort of major network service.

Stations who want to make the DTV-only cut early are required to show that at least 90 percent of their audiences will be able to receive analog service from another major network source. This could be from one or more net affiliates in the DMA remaining on the air in analog format, or from an "enhanced" nightlight service within the market.

If termination of a major network carrier’s analog transmissions results in loss of service to more than 10 percent of the market, then that affiliate wanting to drop analog must provide special assistance to the viewing public with additional DTV consumer education, telephone viewer assistance, referral numbers, and the establishment of walk-in help centers and outreach programs. The commission said such measures may be shouldered collectively by stations in a given market, or they may be undertaken by individual broadcasters.

According to Michael Copps, acting FCC Chairman, the overriding concern of the new DTV rule set is for stations to act in the public interest in making their transitions.

"The guiding principle here is simple--consumers deserve to know the truth," Copps said. "They will forgive a lot, but they won’t forgive being lulled into a false sense that the transition will be less disruptive or less expensive than it turns out to be."

Feb. 17 transition issues flagged by the FCC, and which have led to creation of the additional rules, include loss of signal to a portion of a station’s analog coverage area, lack of proper information about receiving antennas, and spotty information about the necessity for rescanning converter boxes and DTV receivers in some markets.

The commission is requiring stations that will lose two percent or more of their analog coverage to provide on-air and other notification to audiences. Also, stations are now required to provide information about the importance of proper receiving antennas, especially if broadcasting is being moved from a VHF channel to one in the UHF spectrum.

The commission has already mandated that stations which have not yet transitioned to analog must file by March 17 a binding notice of their planned date for ending analog broadcasts. The commission noted that, in general, remaining analog broadcasters may not cut their analog signals prior to April 16, and in any event must air notification of their intent to terminate 30 days before ending service. An exception is provided for noncommercial stations that plead financial hardship. In those cases, March 27 has been established as an early termination date.