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Time is up for many DTV laggards

WTVI in Charlotte, NC, is one of more than 600 stations operating with a digital signal. The NAB wants those broadcasters who have yet to convert their stations to do so quickly or else face fines.

It's crunch time for 71 commercial television broadcasters who, citing a variety of hardships, have been trying to delay their transition to DTV. The FCC ordered the stations to begin digital transmissions by December 1, 2002, or face fines.

In response, the NAB said that 44 more stations have made the transition, bringing the current total to 665 stations (in 171 markets), commercial and public, on-the-air with a digital signal. Most are operating at low-power to conserve electricity costs.

Earlier this year, the 71 stations were reprimanded by the commission for not meeting the May 1, 2002, DTV deadline. Six month extensions granted to another 772 stations have now expired. The FCC has granted second six-month extensions to 62 of the 507 stations that made requests. Others continue to be under review.

Any of the 71 stations that failed to meet the Dec. 1 deadline can be fined and ordered to meet new construction deadlines or loose their permits, the FCC said.

Approximately 1,280 commercial television stations were supposed to be on the air by May 1, 2002. Of the 665 cited by the NAB, roughly 80 are public stations that are not mandated to be on the air until May 1, 2003. That means more than half of the commercial stations in the U.S. have yet to make the transition.

Of the new stations, WTAT-TV and WMMP-TV, both serving the Charleston, S.C. market (#105) and owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, went on-the-air in late October (just before its FCC-approved extension was to run out). The stations are the first in their market to make the transition.

Assistant Chief Engineer Dan Orta, responsible for both stations, said that they are using two low-power Rohde & Schwarz digital transmitters and Dielectric antennas operating at approximately 600 watts.

The transmitters are only temporary, Orta said, in order to get the stations on the air and satisfy the government mandate. They plan to replace them "some time in the future" with high-power Acrodyne Industries (Ai) transmitters, he said, when work on their DTV transmission tower is finished. Sinclair is the majority owner of Ai.

"We've worked really hard just to get on the air with something, in order to be legal," Orta said. "Getting the corporation [Sinclair] to send us the necessary digital equipment held us up the most."

Like many parts of the country, the prospects for DTV's success in Charleston appear slim, according to Orta, "if we have four viewers out here I'd be surprised."

Orta said he's not sure what it will take to stimulate the market. "We're on- the-air [with digital] and hoping for the best."

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