As we wrote on Friday, the Senate has passed the Bill that would extend from February 17 to June 12 the deadline for full-power television stations to transition to digital operations.  This leaves the House of Representatives to once again consider the matter – supposedly in committee on Tuesday and perhaps by vote of the full House as early as Wednesday.  In preparation for that consideration, there have been conflicting letters released by Congressmen supporting the bill and those who are oppose.  The opponents claim that the ability of TV stations to transition before the end date, an option that was important to Senate Republicans who unanamously supported the extension of the transition date, may not in reality exist.  The supporters of the bill point to the over 1.85 million people who are on the waiting list for the $40 coupons to be applied against the cost of DTV converters to allow analog televisions to receive digital signals after the transition.  What do these letters add to the debate?

The Republican Congressmen leading the charge against the delay of the transition suggest in their letter that the ability of TV stations to transition before an extended June 12 DTV deadline is largely illusory, as they imply that most stations cannot transition until the last day because of interference concerns.  They have asked the FCC to immediately provide information about how many stations would be precluded from a transition until June 12 if the date is extended.  From our experience, while there are some stations that need to delay their DTV transition until some other station has changed channels, we would be surprised if most stations are precluded from doing so.  Many stations are simply going to continue on the channels on which they are currently operating their DTV transitional facilities.  Thus, if they are already operating their DTV stations on their post-transition channel, by definition they are not suffering from any preclusive interference issues.  And the vast majority of the remaining stations are planning to operate after the transition on their current analog channel which itself, in most cases, is free from interference as the analog operation would have in most cases precluded other stations on interfering channels from operating in too close a proximity to the area served by the station.   We are aware of many stations ready to transition early even if the deadline is extended until June 12, and we would think that these stations had reviewed their situations before deciding to do so, and would have been aware of interference concerns in preparation for their February 17 changeover.  In some cases they may have coordinated an early change with any station that would have presented an interference issue.  Thus, we would be surprised if the FCC report prepared for these Congressmen finds a great number of stations that will be forced to wait until June 12 to do their digital conversion even if they are inclined to make the change early.

Continue Reading Will the House Pass the DTV Extension? – Dueling Congressional Letters Take Opposing Positions

The Senate has reportedly once again approved the extension of the digital television transition date from February 17 to June 12 (see Press Release from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison here).  This approval was necessary as the bill being considered by the House of Representatives is slightly different than the one passed by the Senate on Monday.  Now – it’s back to the House, which failed yesterday to pass that bill by a 2/3 vote (see our post here).  Under the expedited process that was being used, the failure to get a 2/3 vote meant that the legislation did not pass.  The legislation now must got through the normal consideration process in the House, being first approved by committee, then voted on by the full House – with only a majority needed to approve the measure.  The House is going to be out of session tomorrow through Monday, so the committee that now needs to consider the bill could review it next Tuesday, and then it could be voted on by the full House on Wednesday. So if all goes as planned, there could be an extension approved next week.  If the House process somehow gets held up, the President and the FCC cannot act on any extension without action by Congress, as the February 17 date is written into law and can only be changed by a new law.  Given that the transition is only 3 weeks away, and the extension of the transition is still not a certainty, what is a television station to do?

Initially, stations should proceed as if the February 17th deadline will stick as, for now, it is the law. So keep running all the required crawls, snipes and tickers promoting the upcoming termination of analog television.  If an extension is passed, these announcements will only have caused more people to get ready for a transition that will occur sooner or later. But the extension will also allow stations to opt to transition before the new June deadline, and cease their analog operations early.  How do these stations proceed?

Continue Reading Senate Approves DTV Extension Bill Again and it’s Back to the House of Representatives – What’s a Station to Do?

Earlier this week, we wrote about the apparent compromise in the Senate between Republicans and Democrats that would seemingly allow the Digital Television conversion deadline to be delayed from the current date of February 17 that stations have been warning consumers about for years, pushing that date back until June 12.  That compromise legislation passed the

This week, an agreement by Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the ranking minority member on the Senate Commerce Committee, to an extension of the DTV transition deadline from February 17 until June 12, was announced.  The delay has been requested so that issues about the distribution of the $40 government coupons to consumers to ease their purchase of converters to allow analog TVs to pick up digital signals so that they will continue to work after the transition date can be resolved; and so that there can be more targeted information about the transition delivered to groups that many feel may not have received the message about the transition. But Congressional Republicans have thus far blocked attempts by the Obama administration to delay the transition, so this agreement by Senator Hutchinson is viewed as a sign that the extension may very well be approved in the near term.  As the transition deadline is only weeks away, if Congress is going to act, it needs to do so immediately, or the effect of any delay will be negligible as the transition will have, for all practical purposes, already occurred.

Most broadcast stations have made plans for the transition – ordering the equipment, scheduling tower crews, coordinating the changes in frequencies with other stations in the same region that may be necessary to accommodate the digital operations.  In some cases, stations have already ceasing their analog broadcasting so that the new equipment necessary to accomplish the transition can be installed, or because these stations will be operating digitally on their analog frequency and have had to allow a tower crew or other engineering support to conduct the work necessary to allow the digital operations on the final channel to occur before the February deadline dates.  Given the limited number of such crews, not all of these final changes could happen on a single date, so stations have been changing to all digital operations now as the final date approaches.  Without Congressional action very soon, the transition will have, for the most part, already occurred.

Continue Reading Senator Hutchison Announces Compromise on DTV Transition Delay Until June 12 – Why Congress Needs to Act Soon

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin announced that he will be leaving the Commission on Tuesday as the new President is inaugurated, and thus will not be present at the FCC to set any last minute policy for the DTV transition.  In fact, if Martin had decided to stay for the end of the transition, he might well have had to stick around for a while, as there are bills making their way through Congress to delay the February 17 deadline for the transition to digital television.  Senator Rockefeller has introduced a bill that would extend the deadline to June 12, which Senate Republicans blocked last week, though it will reportedly be reintroduced this week.  At the same time, the three remaining Commissioners have all released letters that indicate that there are significant transition problems that need to be resolved before the transition deadline.  While there are those who wonder if the delay will really solve the problems that may exist – the movement is in the direction of a delay.

The letters from the Commissioners are most interesting.  First came a letter from Commissioner McDowell, not directed to Congress, but instead to Chairman Martin, publicly asking for information about the FCC’s DTV phone bank to answer questions from consumers about the transition.  According to the McDowell letter, he was unable to get information about the status of upgrades to the system to handle the expected influx of calls at the end of the transition.  McDowell also complained about calls that were not answered at all, or which had long wait times, when consumers called – wait times that often resulted in connections with a voicemail system.  And he raised questions about the failure of the phonebank to be open on weekends.  It has now been announced that IBM has been hired to man the phonebank, perhaps answering some of the questions Commissioner McDowell raised in his letter.

Continue Reading Kevin Martin Departs as Congress Looks at June 12 DTV Transition Deadline – While Remaining Commissioners Write Letters About Transition Problems

The FCC’s has published in the Federal Register certain aspects of its November decision on closed captioning – most notably the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking asking if a broadcaster’s multicast streams should each count as a separate "channel" potentially exempt from closed captioning requirements if that channel doesn’t bring in more than $3 million

A day after the Obama transition team wrote to Congress suggesting that the DTV transition now scheduled for February 17 be delayed, there are indications that a bandwagon effect is beginning to develop in favor of such a delay.  Broadcasting and Cable magazine’s website reports that the four major TV networks have indicated that they support a delay in the transition if it will better serve their viewers, and that Senator Rockefeller has started drafting legislation to delay the transition.  The New York Times featured a guest editorial from two former FCC Chairmen – Republican Michael Powell and Democrat William Kennard – supporting the delay (and mentioning one of the same issues that we had mentioned the day before – the need for education of consumers about the need for different antennas to receive the digital signal).  But others are not so sure that a delay makes sense.

While the NY Times editorial may make it look like the delay request is a bipartisan effort, there are other indications that there is at least some evidence of partisan differences beginning to develop.  The NY Times today quotes Joe Barton, a senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as opposing a change.  Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the delay will confuse consumers, while Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein is quoted in the same article as being sympathetic to the postponement.  While the political groups are taking sides, many in industry seem reluctant to delay the transition date. 

Continue Reading More Evidence that a Digital Television Conversion Delay May Be On Its Way – But There is Opposition

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

Several press reports were issued today suggesting that there is at least some consideration in Congress of delaying the DTV transition now scheduled to be completed on February 17.  The consideration stems from the announcement that the NTIA (the National Telecommunications and Information Administration) had run out of money to issue the $40 coupons

The Copyright Royalty Board today published a notice in the Federal Register announcing the start of its next proceeding to set the royalties to be paid by Internet radio operators for the performance rights to use "sound recordings" (a particular recording of a song as performed by a particular performer) pursuant to the statutory royalty.  As we’ve written extensively on this blog, the statutory royalty allows an Internet radio station to use any publicly released recording of a song without the permission of the copyright owner (usually the record company) or the artist who is recorded, as long as the station’s owner pays the royalty – currently collected by SoundExchange.  In 2007, the Copyright Royalty Board set the royalties for 2006-2010, a decision which prompted much controversy and is still under appeal.  In the Notice released today, the CRB set February 4 as the deadline for filing a Petition to Participate in the proceeding to set the royalties for the next 5 year period.

The 2006-2010 royalties are currently the subject of negotiations as the parties to the last proceeding attempt to come to a voluntary settlement to set royalties that are different than those established by the CRB decision.  The Webcasting Settlement Act (which we summarized here) gives webcasters until February 15 to reach an agreement as to rates that would become an alternative to the rates that the CRB established.  The Act also permits parties to reach deals that are available not only for the 2006-2010 period, but also allows the deals to cover the period from 2011-2016.  Thus, theoretically, webcasters could all reach agreements with SoundExchange to establish rates that cover the next royalty period, obviating the need for the proceeding of which the CRB just gave notice.  But, as is so often the case, those settlements may not be reached (if they are) until the last minute – so parties may need to file their Petitions to Participate before they know whether a settlement has been achieved.

Continue Reading Here We Go Again – Copyright Royalty Board Announces Date for Filing to Particpate in Proceeding to Set Webcasting Royalties for 2011-2015