The FCC late Friday released an Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking addressing a number of issues which arose as a result of the Congressional delay in the DTV transition deadline from February 17 until June 12.  In many cases, the actions taken in the Order are ministerial – e.g. changing the expiration dates on digital construction permits from February to June.  But there were also a number of substantive issues addressed by the order – including the public education requirements for the remainder of the transition and the potential for delaying any further terminations of analog service until at least April, and subjecting any planned termination of analog service before June 12 to additional scrutiny to determine if that termination would serve the public interest.   This is despite what many have termed a relatively uneventful termination of analog service on February 17 by over 400 stations nationwide.  Comments on this change in the transition procedures are to be filed on an expedited basis – within 5 days of the publication of this order in the Federal Register.

The delay of the early termination of service is likely to cause the most controversy, as Senate Republicans backed the transition delay only after specifically including in the legislation language that seemingly permitted such transitions under the rules that were in place at the time that the legislation was adopted (see our post here).  This would seemingly have permitted stations to terminate analog service within 90 days of the June 12 deadline, provided they had given their listeners at least 30 days notice of their plans.  A number of stations have started to provide that notice, planning a termination in March. But the Commission has tentatively concluded that it can amend the process for termination, and has set the date of March 17 for a notice to be filed at the FCC by all stations that want to terminate analog service before June 12.  As the Commission plans to continue to require 30 days public notice of the termination, and as they won’t allow any termination decision to become official until the March 17 filing, the earliest a station can terminate analog service under this proposal (absent a technical issue or other extreme circumstance) would be April 16. 


Continue Reading FCC Releases More Details of Delayed DTV Transition – No More DTV Conversions Until April?

What a difference a few days makes.  At the beginning of this week, it was full speed ahead for the February 17 termination of analog television.  Then NTIA announced that it was out of money to pay for DTV coupons to assist the public in buying converter boxes so that analog TV sets will continue to work after the transition.  This action, in turn, caused Consumers Union to ask Congress for a delay in the transition, resulting in Congressman Markey’s office suggesting that the DTV transition might need to be delayed (as we wrote yesterday).  Today, the other shoe dropped as the Obama transition team formally wrote to Congress asking for a delay of the termination of analog television.  That letter leaves everyone asking – will Congress respond?  If so, what are the ramifications?

The NAB responded with a press release talking about how broadcasters are still prepared to meet the deadline, and how the deadline has focused all parties (TV stations, electronics manufacturers, cable and satellite companies) on doing what they need to do in order to be ready for the transition.  But the Obama team’s call for the postponement does not seem to be focused on the readiness of program providers to accomplish the switch, but instead on the readiness of viewers to deal with the new digital environment, especially given the lack of coupons for last minute shoppers still waiting to buy their converter boxes.  As we’ve written before, many in Washington are worried about the political ramifications of the transition – especially if millions of people wake up on February 18 and can’t watch the Today Show or Good Morning America.  And while that is a legitimate concern, one wonders if it will ever be possible to prepare everyone for the transition deadline.  Sure, if the deadline is postpone 4 or 5 months, there will be a marginal increase in people who are ready, but there will still be stragglers.  Catching up to them all may never happen until they are hit with the reality of their analog sets not working on the day after the transition, whenever that day may be.  If so, shouldn’t someone at least consider the costs that a delay will impose on broadcasters? 


Continue Reading Obama Transition Team Requests Delay of DTV Transition Deadline

 As the digital television transition continues to progress, the FCC has been pursuing not only broadcasters who have been slow in building out their digital facilities, but also consumer electronic manufacturers who have not done enough to facilitate the transition. In a letter released this week, Chairman Martin has by letter urged consumer electronics retailers to stock inexpensive converter boxes that will pick up digital signals and allow analog television sets to broadcast those signals, keeping those sets from becoming obsolete. Also, the FCC recently entered into a consent decree agreeing to a fine for Sling Media for not including a digital television tuner in some of its equipment, reminding all consumer electronics manufacturers, including those who install them as an adjunct to their technology, of the need to include such tuners in their equipment.

The issue of the digital converter boxes is an interesting one. When NTIA started issuing coupons to consumers to subsidize their transition to digital, it was hoped that the $40 coupons that consumers would receive would come close to covering the entire cost of the converter box necessary to keep an analog set operational. In fact, in most cases, the boxes have cost more than $40, requiring the consumer to pay at least some of the cost of the box. What has been particularly frustrating has been the announcement that Echostar, the satellite television provider of the Dish Network, had manufactured a highly rated box that would be available at $40, and would also include the ability to “pass through” analog signals – to continue to receive analog as well as digital signals – a particularly important property in markets where there are LPTV or TV translator stations that will continue to operate in analog after the February 17, 2009 deadline for the digital conversion of full-power television stations (see our post here on that issue). However, as the Chairman’s letter makes clear, that box and boxes like it are not available in most consumer electronics stores. Thus, the Commission has urged retailers to stock such devices in these final months before the digital cut-off so that no one is left behind. 


Continue Reading FCC Tackles Equipment Manufacturers for Not Including DTV Tuners in Their Devices

It’s been a week since Wilmington, North Carolina became the first television market in the country to have virtually all of its television stations convert to digital – ceasing their analog operations.  The FCC, NAB and local stations all concentrated great resources in Wilmington in order to ensure that the transition was smooth and, while most observers believe that disruption was minimal, there are some who remain concerned about the results of the Wilmington experiment, and whether it can be replicated in other television markets.  While the FCC ramps up its efforts to promote the digital television transition around the country, one Commissioner has suggested several other steps that should be taken (including leaving an analog lifeline for those people who don’t get the message), and Congress is set to weigh in on the issues over the next two weeks.  All in all, the push is on for the February 17, 2009 transition to digital.

One of the most thought provoking commentaries on the transition comes from Harry Jessell, editor of TV Newsday.  In a commentary published last Friday, Jessell computes that the complaints in Wilmington amounted to about 5% of the television households in that market.  If that pattern was to be repeated in all markets around the country, Jessell computes that there would be about 1.7 million homes that will miss the transition and be without TV service on February 18.  Jessell further figures that this is a best case number, as all of the publicity showered on Wilmington will not be available in the remainder of the country, and there will likely be more technical problems in other markets with more irregular terrain than Wilmington (which is mostly flat coastal plain) and where TV towers are in different locations.  Jessell suggests several steps – including staggered cut-off dates to avoid overloading national DTV hotlines, more education on antenna issues (one of the major issues in Wilmington), and more "soft-tests" (stations ceasing analog operations for limited periods to see if their viewers are ready for the transition). It is a commentary worth reading.


Continue Reading Digital Television Conversion is a Reality in Wilmington NC – Publicity Ramps Up Around the Country While Issues of Readiness are Raised

I recently attended the convention of the Montana Broadcasters Association, and just a few weeks before that I had been at an event sponsored by the Washington State Association of Broadcasters.  Talking with small market TV Broadcasters in those states, an issue that does not affect major television markets but which complicates the digital transition has become clear.  In smaller markets in many states, particularly in some of the western states where there are multiple geographically dispersed cities in many television markets, there is at least one network affiliate in many cities that is either an LPTV or TV translator station.   As we’ve written before, LPTV and translator stations are not required to convert to digital by the February 2009 digital conversion deadline.  Instead, these stations can continue to operate in analog until an as yet unspecified date in the future.  While these stations are allowed to convert to digital, many do not have the resources to do so.  Thus, many of these stations will continue to broadcast in analog after the February 18 transition deadline.  What makes the issue particularly problematic is that most  DTV converters do not allow the "pass through" of analog programming, i.e. once they are hooked up, television sets only receive digital signals and analog signals are effectively blocked.  This presents the potential of marketplace confusion for those viewers who do not receive their signals from cable or satellite, as they will be getting conflicting messages – being told to get a digital converter to pick up the full-power stations in a market as they convert to digital, but if the consumer buys the wrong converter box, they will not be able to receive other LPTV and translator stations in the same market.

The problem has been exaggerated as converter boxes with analog pass through have been delayed in reaching the marketplace.  When I bought converter boxes in Washington, DC early last month, neither of the two major electronics retailers had the converter boxes with analog pass-through available.  A well-reviewed box from EchoStar was supposed to hit stores last month, but it is in short supply.  I can find it on-line only at the Dish Network’s (owned by EchoStar) own website.  Thus, for households who buy and connect most of the available digital converter boxes, suddenly their analog LPTV stations are gone.  In some of these smaller Western markets, that may mean the loss of one or more local network affiliates.


Continue Reading The Digital Transition End Game in Smaller Markets – The Problem with LPTV

With the Digital Television conversion date only eight and a half months away, the end game is beginning.  The FCC has announced that Wilmington, North Carolina will be a test market for the digital conversion, going all-digital on September 8 (or almost all digital, as the local NPR affiliate is not planning to turn off its analog signal, and one LPTV station will continue to operate in analog).  This will provide the FCC with an opportunity to determine what will really happen when the digital transition occurs in February of next year.  What will the FCC learn from this early test?  In the statement of Commissioner Copps at a recent town hall meeting held in Wilmington to address the digital conversion, some of the issues to be watched were set out.

Essentially, the Commissioner identified four different broad categories of issues that would be considered.  They are:

  • Technical issues – will the DTV signals provide adequate service to their communities?  Will the converter boxes be able to receive the signals with "rabbit ear" antennas, or will there be reception problems
  • Will consumers have received the word about the transition, or are there certain groups that will be particularly hard-hit by the transition, missing out on vital information about that transition?
  • How will various partnerships work?  The Commissioner identifies partnerships between various industry, government and community groups to distribute news about the transition, but there are also partnerships between stations and multi-channel video providers (cable and direct broadcast satellite) that need to be worked out
  • The unknown – what other issues that are not anticipated will arise?

As set forth below, many of these issues have been receiving extensive press coverage in recent weeks.


Continue Reading What Will the FCC Learn from Wilmington – The Beginning of the End of the TV Digital Transition

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration ("NTIA") now has made available the coupons for consumers to use to buy converter boxes that will allow analog television sets to pick up the digital signals of television stations.  We have written about the NTIA program before, here.  Digital signals are now available in most markets, and these signals will be the only signals available from full power television stations after the February 17, 2009 digital conversion deadline. The coupons, valued at $40, will be available until they run out (and, by most estimates, Congress has not appropriated enough money for every household to get coupons).  They are available to any household regardless of financial need, but can be used only to buy certain very simple converter boxes to convert over-the-air digital transmissions to analog so that the digital programs can be seen on analog television sets that are not hooked up to cable or satellite (cable and satellite systems will provide signals that will not need the use of these boxes).  The NTIA has a very helpful website, here, to explain the coupon program.  The applications for the coupons are available here

Any household can apply for up to two coupons.  Coupons cannot be aggregated to buy a single box – so the multiple coupons will only be of use to households with more than one set that is not connected to cable or satellite.  As set forth on the NTIA site, the boxes are expected to cost between $50 and $70, so the coupon will not completely cover the cost of the box.  What is perhaps most interesting is that, even though the applications for the coupons can be filed now, the coupons will not be sent out for another month or two, as there are no boxes yet available in local retail outlets.


Continue Reading Coupons For Converter Boxes Now Available From NTIA, So That Consumers Can Watch Digital Television on Analog Sets