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FCC sets high bar for allowing TV markets to make early digital switch

February 5, 2009 |  1:53 pm

The Federal Communications Commission today provided TV viewers and broadcasters some clarity about the nationwide switch to digital television, which Congress voted to delay until June 12.

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Acting FCC Chairman Michael J. Copps. (Credit: Joshua Roberts / For The Times)

Acting FCC Chairman Michael J. Copps said today that the major broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC/Telemundo -- have vowed that their owned-and-operated stations would not turn off their analog signals until that date. Though many local affiliates are independently operated, the networks' pledge puts pressure on station owners to wait.

The legislation, which is awaiting President Obama's expected signature, allows stations to make the digital transition before June 12 with FCC approval.

At least one L.A.-area station, the News Corp.-owned KTTV Fox 11, will keep its analog signal going until June 12. We're still working to figure out the plans of other local broadcasters.

Copps said today that the FCC would set a high hurdle for approving early switches in markets where all stations want to make the transition before June 12. Though the agency may allow individual stations to switch early, commissioners worry that allowing all stations to turn off their analog signals early could leave unprepared viewers with no access to any TV. 

"We reserve the right to deny those requests if we find that it would not serve the public interest or if it would frustrate Congress' goal of giving consumers adequate time to prepare," he said.

The federal agency announced that stations would have to notify the FCC by Monday if they want to turn off their analog broadcast signals on the original date of Feb. 17.

Stations had prepared themselves for that date and face increased costs -- including thousands of dollars a month in electricity bills -- for continuing to transmit their analog signal along with the new digital one most already have been airing for months. So there are strong reasons ...

... for them to try to shut off their analog transmitters in two weeks. Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which owns 39 TV stations across the country, is among those that have said they intend to switch on Feb. 17 regardless of the congressional delay.

A patchwork quilt of signals, with some stations broadcasting only in digital and others in both analog and digital, could create headaches for consumers. Some older converter boxes don't have the ability to handle both types of signals, so some viewers would have to unplug the device to watch one channel broadcast in analog, then plug it back in to watch another in digital.

Copps promised to use the extra four months to improve government outreach efforts, which he said have been inadequate.

"I welcome this delay because it has long been clear to me -- and it has become even more clear in the less than two weeks that I have been acting chairman -- that we were not ready for a nationwide transition on Feb. 17," he said. "We must keep the consumer focus front and center as we proceed."

-- Jim Puzzanghera

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