The Community Broadcasters Association (CBA) last week asked an appeals court in Washington, D.C., to force the FCC to stop distribution and marketing of NTIA coupon-qualified converter boxes without analog-receive capability.
The move has the potential to derail the nation’s transition to DTV in February 2009. If the court agrees with the association that it is illegal to distribute TV receive equipment without the ability to receive all legal channels transmitted, it’s difficult to envision how the deadline will be met.
HD Technology Update spoke with Greg Herman, CBA VP of technology, to learn why the association has taken this extraordinary step.
HD Technology Update: Why has the Community Broadcasters Association (CBA) petitioned the court for a writ of mandamus to order the FCC to halt distribution and marketing of DTV converter boxes without analog tuners?
Greg Herman: First of all, we believe converter boxes lacking analog reception capability are in violation of the All Channel Receiver Act. Further, we believe the converter boxes that are being distributed are ill-conceived and are going to disadvantage those very individuals they were designed to help by blocking reception of the thousands of remaining analog televisions stations across the United States.
HD Technology Update: What involvement, if any, did the CBA have in the converter box design that ultimately was authorized for the NTIA coupon program?
Greg Herman: We filed comments with the NTIA early on when they requested input on the boxes. Our comments are available on our Web site, KeepUsOn.com, in the media section. Those comments included suggesting that there was an absolute need for analog reception capability, and we also pointed out the need for other capabilities, including some form of software upgradability so the boxes would not become worthless as new codecs came online for digital television.
The NTIA received those comments and basically suggested that they would make analog reception capability permissive. At that point, we had to wait to see what number of boxes would have this capability. We assumed they all should. That was the level of input we had.
We, the CBA, generally were not consulted about anything to do with the DTV Converter Box Program. We did have one meeting with NTIA officials before the final rules were announced, and we stressed the importance of being able to continue to receive analog stations. We certainly tried to make our presence known, but it is not uncommon for people to lose track of the fact that there are different kinds of television stations. We are, in fact, just television stations. We just happen to operate at reduced power in some circumstances. But that does not change the fact that we are broadcasters, just like full-power television stations, and that we broadcast television to the public.
It is difficult sometimes to differentiate between a full-power, an LP, a Class A and a translator [station]. The general public does not know the difference and should not have to.
HD Technology Update: Why was now the appropriate time for the court petition?
Greg Herman: That’s a very interesting question. It took quite a bit of time for us to analyze all the legal aspects of our case, and we also wanted to give ample time to try to work with the other stakeholders. We worked exhaustively to try to find solutions with the other entities involved in this process and effectively were grossly dissatisfied with the solutions they offered. They were not adequate; they were not going to be rapidly introduced. Again, we had to continue to fight against misinformation from all sources and after having done all the appropriate due diligence on our petition, we felt having completed that, the time was tied to us being able to verify all of our facts, determine our course of action and verify the standing in the All Channel Receiver Act.
HD Technology Update: How did we get to this point? In other words, why wasn’t the analog reception capability addressed before now?
Greg Herman: We did try to have it addressed. We have raised this issue since ’06. In fact, even before that I had meetings with the FCC to discuss the need to have both analog and digital reception capability in any kind of set-top box.
I think it was just really the fervor to get to digital and in some ways the institutional arrogance surrounding full-power television. I’m not being negative, but just basically, they don’t recognize there is any kind of television other than full-power television. I think the NTIA did that. They simply decided they were going to punt on the low-power issue. That was a mistake.
HD Technology Update: Why is it so important for the CBA to maintain analog reception capability in over-the-air homes?
Greg Herman: There are a couple of components to that question. One, low-power, Class A and translator stations have no meaningful right to multichannel video program distribution services.
So, if you assume that some 12 percent of viewers across the nation still consume their TV over the air, that’s 12 percent of a 100 percent for a full-power station. That 12 percent basically represents 100 percent of our viewers.
Because we have been left out of the digital television transition proceedings for so many years, we are still analog and will be for the foreseeable future until such time that we can join the digital world, which we hope to do. Because we are analog and rely on over-the-air service, it is essential to us that no devices are distributed that would block or even inconvenience viewers from watching our stations. That’s our total market.
For a full-power station, that is a different reality. Over-the-air is a portion of their market. But it is absolutely critical to us that no devices — particularly those funded by tax dollars — block over-the-air reception of our federally licensed facilities. In fact, we believe that doing so is illegal.
HD Technology Update: Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), recently said the CBA is trying to cover for its refusal to shift to DTV. Is that what’s going on?
Greg Herman: Again, Mr. Shapiro’s combative and argumentative comments are something that we are becoming quite accustomed to. He lives in a world where no doubt he gets whatever he wants, whenever he wants it, but our viewers aren’t necessarily like him. The CBA isn’t covering anything. We, up until very recently, haven’t been given a chance to participate in the digital transition, and as a result, we will need time.
As for going digital, we seek to go digital but to do so in a way that makes sense for our industry. Clearly, the government agreed as we were not required to go digital on Feb. 17, 2009, nor are the translators that the full powers rely on to reach rural areas.
His contention that we don’t want to go digital is absurd. My contention is we do want to go digital, but in a way that respects an appropriate timeline for transitioning 7000 television stations — not 1700 stations, but 7000.
If he wants to provide the funding for our industry to go digital, we are more than happy to accelerate the process.
HD Technology Update: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Greg Herman: I think it is unfortunate that we have had to come to this point. The CBA has tried diligently to make sure we informed all stakeholders of the outcome of blocking analog reception when the majority of broadcasters and translators will remain analog.
Unfortunately, once again people given an opportunity to rectify a mistake have chosen instead to ignore it, and now we have been forced to take action. I believe we are doing the right thing for the American people, since their tax dollars are being spent to make sure an existing law from 1962 — the All Channel Receiver Act — is fully enforced.
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