Shutdown Delay Prompts New FCC Notice to Stations

Last week I said “not so fast” in response to stories indicating that the Feb. 17 analog shut-off was back on track after the House of Representatives defeated a Senate bill to delay it.

Since that vote, the Senate revised the bill and passed it again with a unanimous vote. The new bill, S.352 was sent to the House and considered under regular rules requiring only a majority vote.

On Wednesday, the House passed the DTV Delay Act by a vote of 264 to 158. President Obama has said he will sign the Act, which means TV stations will not have to shut off their analog transmitters on by midnight Feb. 17.

With less than two weeks until the previously scheduled shutdown, the FCC had to act fast. On Thursday it released a Public Notice (FCC 09-6) with procedures for stations terminating analog television service on or after Feb. 17, 2009.

The key message here for TV stations is that they must notify the FCC by 11:59 p.m. Monday, Feb. 9, if they want to turn off their analog service on Feb. 17, 2009.

While the FCC waived the notification for stations shutting off analog on Feb. 17, stations that do not file to turn off their analog signal on Feb. 17 will have to follow the procedures in the Third Periodic Review Report and Order. These require notifying the FCC 90 days prior to shutting off analog service and airing notifications for 60 days prior to ending analog broadcasting.

In some cases, the FCC could deny requests for shut-offs prior to June 12.

According to the notice, and “consistent with our public interest responsibilities and Congress’ delay of the transition to June 12 to give consumers additional time to prepare,” the FCC said it would reserve the right to limit or reconsider the partial waiver if it determined that a station or group of stations shutting down analog on Feb. 17 would not be in the public interest. The notice said that in such an event, the affected station or stations would be promptly notified.

The commission said it would consider prohibiting analog shutdowns “if all or most of the stations in a market will terminate their analog service on Feb. 17, and that the market is one in which many viewers are unprepared for the transition or at risk if the transition proceeds.”

In such cases, stations will have to submit additional information to justify their request to shut down on Feb. 17.

The FCC Public Notice outlines additional notification requirements for stations wanting to shut off analog signals on Feb. 17. It also encourages stations ending analog transmissions on Feb. 17 to continue broadcasting emergency information and a DTV transition information slate on their analog channel for a minimum of two weeks. Since the final transition is not taking place on Feb. 17, all stations will be allowed to provide this “nightlight” service, even if they were not on the post-transition eligible station list.

Stations planning to change channels or maximize their coverage post-transition will be pleased to learn the FCC will allow them to operate on post-transition channels before June 12 under certain conditions. Such stations must demonstrate that they will not cause “impermissible interference” to authorized analog or pre-transition digital stations. They must also maintain a digital service equivalent to or better than its current digital service, and also begin full post-transition operations on the transition deadline. (Interested stations should see the Public Notice for additional requirements.)

How many stations will shut off analog TV on Feb. 17?

In a letter to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps provided a list of full-power TV stations operating on their post-transition DTV channel as of Feb. 2, 2009.

In the letter, Chairman Copps said 143 stations have already terminated analog service and that 276 stations have notified the FCC that they intend to shut down analog TV service on Feb. 17, even though this notification was not required.

Approximately 61 percent of full power TV stations are already operating on their post-transition DTV channel.

Stations wanting to end analog operations on Feb. 17 may remain on their current DTV channel or, if they have a different post-transition DTV channel, can move to that channel, with a certain proviso that states that such a move is OK, as long as the commission's Media Bureau has conducted an engineering analysis and determined that the move would not present harmful interference to other existing analog or digital operations. The commission said that a determination would be made on a case-by-case and fact-specific basis, and cautioned stations that they were required to notify viewers of their intention to terminate analog service.

Station management will be making some tough decisions this weekend. If all stations in a market decide to shut down analog on Feb. 17, the FCC may require additional justification and deny some of those stations' requests. However if stations do not notify the FCC that they will cease analog broadcasting on the 17th, they’re committed to paying analog power/maintenance bills for at least 90 days after giving notice to end analog service, or until the June transition date.