|FCC OKs stations cutting back DTV ops to prime time only: In a victory for broadcasters, the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday announced a change in rules permitting stations to slash digital TV power and hours of operation.|
Under the FCC's original regulations, broadcasters were supposed to air DTV signals whenever their analog channels were in operation. They were also supposed to be broadcasting with enough DTV power to cover their analog service areas by the end of 2004. But the National Association of Broadcasters argued that the regulations were a waste of electricity because so few households are equipped to receive DTV.
Under the rule changes, the FCC authorized broadcasters to cut DTV operations back to prime time only, at least until April 2003. The FCC also said that for the foreseeable future, broadcasters would only have to use enough DTV power to cover their communities of license.
FCC officials also said broadcasters might be allowed to operate at the reduced power levels until the DTV transition is complete, defined as when 85 percent of TV households are able to receive the DTV signals of broadcasters in a market.
On a related note, the FCC said it would be open to granting waivers to commercial broadcasters who plead that financial hardships have prevented them from meeting a longtime agency deadline to launch DTV operations by May 1 next year.
Under the FCC's original DTV game plan, the 2002 deadline was set to expedite the DTV transition-and broadcasters who couldn't meet the cut were supposed to return their digital TV channels to the government.
But now the FCC is expecting so many broadcasters to miss the target date that the agency said it is designing a special new "short form" for waiver applications.
The FCC also announced that it was putting on indefinite hold a deadline that was supposed to require stations authorized to beef up their DTV operations to operate at full power by May 1. Also put on hold was a requirement that broadcasters decide whether they want to use their existing analog channels for DTV operations by the end of 2003.
These FCC deadlines were also originally adopted to encourage DTV's rollout. But in an unusual twist, FCC officials said Thursday they now believe that postponing the deadlines might better serve the interests of the DTV transition by reducing initial DTV operational costs for broadcasters.
"It should speed a transition to a digital world," said FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy.
In a press release, the FCC also said the changes would allow broadcasters to "elect a more graduated approach" to DTV. "Broadcasters would be permitted initially to build lower-powered and therefore less expensive DTV facilities and retain the right to expand their coverage area as the digital transition continues to progress," the FCC said.
OF COMMISSIONER MICHAEL J. COPPS
In the Matter of: Review of the Commission's Rules and Policies
Affecting the Conversion to Digital Television
The Commission's decision today strikes a balance between moving the digital transition along on schedule and providing a measure of flexibility to stations as they build and upgrade their digital facilities within that time frame.
Pursuant to a Congressional directive, the FCC several years ago implemented an ambitious schedule for the transition to digital television. Many of the nation's television broadcasters have done a commendable job of getting their DTV stations up and running in accordance with that schedule. The NAB has reported that as many as two thirds of the nation's commercial television stations will be on the air with a digital signal by May of 2002.
Nevertheless, it appears that certain stations - particularly stations in smaller television markets - are facing costs that make it difficult if not impossible for them to meet the May deadline. Some of those costs may be related to the need for maximization of their digital signals and replication of their analog signal areas by upcoming deadlines. In order to minimize the immediate impact of those costs, we will defer the maximization and replication deadlines, and will set new deadlines that in no case will be later than the deadline for digital conversion prescribed by Congress. I am pleased that this Order so strongly reaffirms this deadline.
For those stations facing unexpected financial obstacles, not relieved by the deferral of the maximization and replication deadlines, and despite their good faith attempts to meet the May 2002 construction deadline, we will consider waiver applications. We will permit individual stations to apply on a case-by-case basis for six- month waivers of the May deadline due to lack of financial resources. I do not expect that stations will apply for these waivers absent genuine hardship, nor that the Bureau will grant them without such showing.
Finally, I am pleased that the Commission did not travel down the path of issuing a general waiver. That would have been unfair to those who are moving toward full performance and it would have been too lenient on those less far along.