Final DTV Rules: Tough but Fair?

The FCC has laid down the law for television broadcasters still dragging their heels on the road toward full-power DTV.

In a New Year’s Eve order, the commission gave some hard dates to make sure broadcasters have as much DTV available as possible come the end of analog on Feb. 18, 2009. It also said it would get tougher in allowing stations to seek waivers to those deadlines.

But for some stations especially those not yet broadcasting digitally from their final DTV channel, a new set of deadlines could be tough to reach. Some are grumbling that broadcasters could have really used the guidance in the order a year ago or more.

Broadcasters asked for more flexibility, but they and their equipment suppliers say they’re ready to comply with the rules they’ve been given.

“[The order] has taken into account the logistical issues that have to be solved—the fact that there aren’t enough crews to do everything on one day, [and] the fact that you can’t move mountains overnight when it comes to things like antennas,” said Jay Adrick, vice president of broadcast technology at Harris.

“What the commission did is reasonable and fair,” said Howard Liberman, a Washington lawyer who represents several broadcasters. “They have to come up with the rules for the whole country.”


In some areas, the commission gave broadcasters some breathing room. It clarified when a station can reduce or terminate its analog signal before the February 2009 deadline. It said it would begin accepting applications for DTV signal maximization in August 2008, and would allow five miles of additional coverage for those maximizing their DTV signal.

Those stations already on their final digital channel with construction permits have just a few months—till May 18—to complete construction. Those remaining on their current channel but who have no construction permit have until Aug. 18. Those moving to a new channel or onto their analog channel will have until the analog end-date of Feb. 17, 2009.

NAB raised no alarm.

“The FCC went a long way towards accommodating many of the serious concerns facing local broadcasters as we move to complete our historic shift to digital television,” said spokesman Dennis Wharton.

Others figure these deadlines will be tough, especially for those who aren’t already on track to meet them. At this point, the schedules of antenna makers and tower crews are harder and harder to change.

“The fact that if they’re on the same channel they have to be done by May—I just don’t see it,” said Mark Polovick, vice president of sales and marketing at Acrodyne, a Phoenixville, Pa.,-based transmitter maker.

Nexstar, which operates 31 stations, most in small or medium markets, told the FCC in August that it had a plan to get all its stations to full-power DTV by Feb. 17, 2009, and it opposed the commission’s drive towards earlier deadlines, (extensions to old deadlines, actually). “Nexstar believes the Commission’s proposals are unduly draconian and will adversely harm the viewing public,” the company told the commission in August.

In the Dec. 31 order, the commission said the new deadlines and stricter waiver guidelines allow broadcasters the flexibility they need while minimizing service disruptions and ensuring that consumers who have invested in digital TVs get the signals they were promised. Notably, the FCC says it will allow delays based on acts of God and proven financial hardship, but not the unavailability of equipment.

Polovick said the FCC was dropping the hammer on those broadcasters who have been slow to complete their build-out; but the order could wipe some stations out.

“We’ve been sitting here doing nothing for the last 12 months because these guys [broadcasters] won’t spend a nickel,” he said. “They’re either going to fall on their face and this whole system is going to collapse or there’s going to be a few major players [who] come in and take over the stations.”

Liberman advises not to plan smaller operators’ funerals quite yet.

“It’s hard to generalize, except that every broadcaster is going to do whatever they can to comply,” he said. “If one [in a station group, for example] doesn’t get done, I’m sure the commission would be sympathetic.”

February 2009 is also the final build-out deadline for those stations facing a “unique technical challenge”—for example, the 49 stations that need to reposition a side-mounted antenna. The Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) and NAB noted that Congress never said broadcasters had to be at their final, full-power DTV mode at the February 2009 deadline, and they argued for broader discretion, including a one-year ramp-up period.

Broadcasters had also argued that they should be given broader discretion to end analog broadcasts ahead of the February 2009 deadline in order to facilitate their final digital build-outs. The order allows analog shutdown as early as Nov. 19, 2008, if the station notifies its viewers and the commission, and earlier, if certain conditions are met.


It also will allow stations to apply for maximization of their DTV signals starting Aug. 18 (when the commission hopes it will have finished processing all the pending applications for post-transition facilities). Maximized facilities will be allowed coverage expansions of up to five miles, which will provide flexibility. It also set a 0.5 percent standard for new interference in post-transition or maximized facilities, as broadcasters had sought.

The maximization opportunity feeds the drive for advanced DTV services such as mobile TV, said Adrick of Harris.

“Broadcasters are going to want the most robust system that they can give in the marketplace,” he said. “I think you’re going to see broadcasters understand the need for redundancy, the need for backup systems, which in the more recent past they have not supported because, ‘So what if a transmitter goes off the air, 85 percent of my audience is on cable.’ It puts the broadcasters back in the same mindset that they had in the early days of television.”