News from the DTV front

While the final transition date has long been set at Feb. 17, 2009, some stations may want to terminate their analog operations before then. For stations in that category that are willing to hold off until Nov. 17, the FCC has worked out an analog turn-off plan with minimal regulatory hurdles.

Early transition opportunity

Most stations will be able to drop their analog channels on Nov. 17 without prior commission approval if they broadcast notices on their analog facilities for at least 30 days, beginning on or before Oct. 18. These notices must alert the audience about the anticipated termination date and inform them about how they can continue to receive the station. Stations choosing this option also will have to notify the commission of their plans at least 30 days in advance through a filing using the FCC's CDBS data system. Stations with flash-cut construction permits cannot avail themselves of this procedure and must seek STAs if they want to cease analog operations.

Licensees wishing to cease analog operations prior to Feb. 17, 2009, are required to notify the public in over-the-air messages containing the following information:

  • the station's call sign and community of license;
  • the fact that the station is planning to reduce or terminate its analog operations before the transition date;
  • the date of the planned reduction or termination;
  • what viewers can do to continue to receive the station, i.e., how and when the station's digital signal can be received;
  • information about the availability of digital-to-analog converter boxes in their service area; and
  • the street address, e-mail address (if available) and phone number of the station where viewers may register comments or request information.

Stations turning off their analog on or after Nov. 17 must air four such announcements daily (at least one in prime time) for the 30 days prior to turn-off.

Early transition in Wilmington, NC

The FCC's evaluation of the early DTV transition in the Wilmington, NC, market was positive. According to the commission, “the vast majority of the 400,000 television viewers impacted by the change … seemed to be prepared for it.” This should not be surprising. The FCC and the local stations blanketed the community with transition information for weeks.

Wilmington has an estimated 180,000 households of which 14,000 rely on over-the-air (i.e., noncable, nonsatellite) signal delivery. On the first day of the Wilmington test, about 800, or 6 percent, of the 14,000 residents called the FCC helpline. And this occurred in a market that had been overwhelmingly blanketed with information. It remains to be seen how smoothly the nationwide transition will go in other markets, where it will not be possible to mount the same level of concentrated public education as was done in Wilmington.

Harry C. Martin is a past president of the Federal Communications Bar Association and a member of Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth, PLC.

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