High Noon for Low Power

Full-power broadcasters may be seeing light at the end of the DTV transition, but for the low-power, Class A, and translator stations—with thousands of antennas now broadcasting in analog—some thorny issues need to be resolved before they too move on to a digital realm.
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WASHINGTON
Full-power broadcasters may be seeing light at the end of the DTV transition, but for the low-power, Class A, and translator stations—with thousands of antennas now broadcasting in analog—some thorny issues need to be resolved before they too move on to a digital realm.

Unlike their full-power counterparts, the lower-output broadcasters are not required to abandon analog broadcasting on Feb. 17, 2009—and some might not abandon those channels anytime soon after.

“Unless some low-power station has a business plan that requires a digital station, I think most of them are just going to sit on their analog operation and not spend the money [to go digital],” said Dr. Byron St. Clair, a Colorado-based consultant and longtime driver of the LPTV movement, who has urged the FCC against imposing a deadline for the stations’ conversion to digital. “We’ll change over to digital when it makes sense.”

The pressure to go digital may come from the viewers themselves, bombarded as they will be in the next year or so with massive industry information campaigns that sometimes suggest—erroneously—that absolutely all analog broadcasting will end in 2009.

FREEZE FRAME

If the DTV transition seemed complicated for full-power broadcasters, it may be even more difficult for the stations with weak signals and few dollars. For now, the FCC is not accepting applications for companion channels for digital-analog dual broadcasting in the style of full-power stations, and few LPTV broadcasters want to flash-cut to digital and disenfranchise their viewers.

The FCC has also closed the window for applications on contour expansion and other actions the stations might take to move forward.

“The freeze on full-power and Class A contour expansion has become very onerous to Class A stations, which are sometimes involuntarily forced to move and sometimes simply wish to improve their facilities,” the Community Broadcasters Association told the FCC in July. “Since virtually all full-power stations have now been accommodated with permanent digital channels, it is time for the freeze to be lifted.”

Low-power (LPTV) stations, licensed by the FCC since 1982, broadcast a wide range of programming to rural areas or urban communities. Class A stations are former LPTV stations with additional interference protection rights. Translators generally retransmit the signals of full-power stations.

Greg Herman, president of Portland, Ore.-based Watch TV and a CBA board member, said that Class A stations could require various changes that the FCC will not consider under the freeze.

For example, a station might need a new site for its second antenna. “You may not be able to, even if it’s a reasonable move, even if it’s totally within the contour,” he said. “I think the whole freeze idea is to make life easier for the FCC and not the broadcasters, because they are trying to figure out what they’re going to do with all the spectrum, post-full-power shutoff, and they haven’t sorted it all out yet.”

SCARING VIEWERS

The messages on the digital transition have focused on the end of analog broadcasts in 2009, ignoring or parsing past the fact that analog signals will continue on many of the approximately 2,100 low-power, 600 Class A, and 4,700 translator stations.

Herman singles out the cable industry’s $200 million campaign he sees as a drive to scare viewers into believing their TVs will stop working.

“If a private enterprise wants to suggest that there’s no analog TV, and they want to lie, I suppose they can do that,” he said. “In actuality we stand at the edge of a better over-the-air television system then we’ve ever had.”

The broadcasters have been getting their message across somewhat; some industry and government missives are now saying “many,” not “all” analog broadcasts will end, or they’re adding the “full-power” qualifier to their warnings. In October, the FCC issued a consumer advisory to try to help clear up the matter.

And then there are the converter boxes and nearly $1.5 billion in federal funds to get them on viewers’ old analog TV sets—where they will, in effect, conceal perfectly good analog signals from viewers.

NO THRU TRAFFIC

Community broadcasters have argued that the converter boxes eligible for the federal $40 coupon program should contain a pass-though mechanism for analog signals, but that feature, while permitted by the coupon program’s rules, does not exist on the boxes so far certified (although viewers will still be able to receive the analog signals if they switch the converter box off).

The threat to community broadcasters’ analog reception is amplified by their relative reliance on over-the-air viewers. Many serve rural areas with limited cable service, and the stations do not qualify for must-carry privileges on cable.

The CBA has also weighed in on the issue of leased cable access, another way for some small operations to get viewers. But broadcasters, as well as local programmers and specialty channels, complain that cable operators view the would-be tenants as competitors for ad dollars and drag their feet in a variety of ways, from not acknowledging requests to lease space, to onerous equipment requirements to outrageous lease fees.

CBA members had a chance to discuss such regulatory issues and plot strategy at the group’s annual convention, Oct. 28-30 in Las Vegas.

The government has some programs in the works to assist community broadcasters. The NTIA is working on the details of a subsidy (up to $1,000 per station) for translators and others to buy digital-to-analog equipment so they can receive digital signals from full-power stations and retransmit them in analog, after full power analog broadcasting ceases Feb. 17, 2009. But with most translator networks using more reliable links, such as T-1 lines or microwaves, Herman predicts the program will have few takers.

Regulatory battles aside, some community broadcasters feel they’re making some progress in their message. At a Congressional hearing on the DTV transition Oct. 17, one lawmaker even asked FCC Chairman Kevin Martin about the stations.

“I think we’ve got the attention of some people at the FCC, so as they ratchet up the education program they will sort of say, we think, ‘Oh by the way, not all low-power TV and translators will change at the same time,’” said St. Clair.