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Simulcast extensions for non-commercial DTVs

Section 73.624(f) of the FCC’s rules required DTV licensees to simulcast 50 percent of the video programming of their analog channel on their DTV channel by April 1, 2003. This requirement increases to a 75 percent simulcast requirement on April 1, 2004, and a 100 percent requirement on April 1, 2005. The commission said that the simulcasting requirement was intended to ensure that consumers enjoy continuity of free over-the-air video programming service when the analog spectrum is reclaimed at the end of the DTV transition. The Commission stated that it may be difficult to terminate analog broadcast service if broadcasters show programs on their analog channels that are not available on their digital channels.

PBS station KTXT Lubbock, TX, will become a DTV broadcaster next month.

The FCC’s Media Bureau has received three requests related to these DTV simulcast requirements. Noncommercial educational television stations collectively requested a temporary suspension of the DTV simulcasting requirements as they apply to NCE stations. Milwaukee Area Technical College (“MATC”) and Paxson Communications Corporation also requested temporary waivers.

The FCC granted the NCE stations and MATC 6-month waivers of the DTV simulcast requirements, but denied the Paxson waiver request. The waivers allow for an initial reduced schedule by providing a digital signal during prime-time hours, consistent with their simulcast obligations. The minimum operating hours for these digital stations with waivers effectively increases as the simulcast obligations are phased in.

In the Notice of Proposed Rule Making initiating the second periodic review of the transition to digital television, adopted in January, the Commission asked whether the simulcasting requirement is causing broadcasters to forego creative uses of digital technology, and if something less than the ultimate 100% simulcast requirement would be sufficient to protect analog viewers while allowing for innovation on DTV channels.

PBS, in its petition, claimed that unlike commercial stations, which had a minimum of 11 months between the latest commercial DTV construction deadline (May 1, 2002) and the commencement of the simulcasting requirement on April 1, 2003, NCE stations were being required to complete construction of their DTV facilities and meet the 50 percent simulcast requirement simultaneously. As a result, NCE stations would be required to focus on transmission systems and encoding and STL systems at the same time, a challenge that many NCE stations have found impossible to meet. PBS also argues that as the Commission is considering whether the simulcast requirements should be retained or modified, it makes sense to suspend temporarily the requirements for NCE DTV stations while these issues are under consideration.

KTXT tower and transmitter building will have the majority of the initial DTV buildout activity.

The FCC pointed out that the waiver in no way waives the existing rules regarding the minimum hours of operation on digital channels. Thus, NCE stations must air, by May 1, 2003, a digital signal for an amount of time equivalent to at least 50 percent of the time they provide an analog signal. In addition, a digital video program signal must be aired during prime-time hours. The minimum digital operating requirement increases to 75 percent on April 1, 2004, and to 100 percent on April 1, 2005.

Paxson, licensee for 28 commercial DTV stations, requested a 1-year waiver of the minimum operating hours requirements currently pegged to the Section 73.624(f) simulcasting requirements. Paxson, in its request, said that regulatory uncertainty remains in two areas central to broadcasters’ transition planning: DTV must-carry and DTV simulcasting requirements. Paxson said that without cable carriage, adherence to the simulcast requirement will not advance the DTV transition or improve service to television viewers, while placing undue financial and technical burdens on Paxson’s DTV stations. Paxson pointed out that the 50 percent simulcast requirement that became effective April 1, 2003, represented a four-fold increase in Paxson’s DTV stations’ operating schedule, with corresponding increases in the stations’ operating costs.

Paxson argued that until broadcasters obtain carriage of their DTV signals, it should not be required to expand DTV service beyond prime-time as most viewers will not be able to view DTV broadcasts until cable carriage is achieved. Paxson also noted that the Commission is considering whether to alter or eliminate the simulcasting requirements. In denying Paxson’s request, the FCC said that it is not appropriate at this stage in the transition to reduce or eliminate the mandatory hours of operation of digital stations, and that by increasing the operating hours of DTV stations subject to the May 1, 2002, and May 1, 2003, digital construction deadlines will help further the drive for DTV set penetration and this encourage content producers and advertisers to invest in DTV. DTV stations have been on notice since the November 2001 adoption of the phased-in simulcast requirements in the First DTV Periodic Review MO&O that their DTV operating hours must be stepped-up beginning on April 1, 2003.

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