Capital Cities/ABC prez Daniel Burke yesterday warned federal regulators that the switch to high definition TV could imperil the survival of small stations.

Burke, in a speech to the Assn. for Maximum Service Television with Federal Communications Commission members and staff in attendance, warned of the “law of unintended consequences” in developing communications policy. “My concern is the possibility of undermining the universal over-the-air system of television by not thinking through every possible consequence of changes now being planned,” he said.

Burke said the high cost of converting a station to HDTV–whi ch some observers have estimated at between $ 2 million and $ 10 million–might drive small broadcasters out of business.

“Could this mean the end of a universal, free over-the-air delivery system as we know it?” he asked. “And if a significant number of stations do close their doors, could the loss of coverage cripple the networks, which are already fragile financially despite their size? Could we become a nation of urban ‘haves’ and small community ‘have nots’?”

Burke said the loss of small stations would hurt the “concept of localism” whereby broadcasters offer local news and information.

The FCC is slated to pick an HDTV standard next year. Broadcasters will then have 15 years to fully convert signal delivery to HDTV.

Burke offered four suggestions for the FCC as the HDTV conversion process develops: that universal over-the-air TV service be continued throughout the U.S.; that the commission consider how its actions might hurt small broadcasters’ ability to deliver local news and public service; that the FCC ensure that new HDTV transmissions not interfere with current broadcast service during the transition; and that coverage provided local stations on new HDTV channels be equal to the current reach.

Burke’s go-slow approach was in sharp contrast to earlier comments in the day from FCC chairman Al Sikes. Sikes noted that “there are some who now sound a note of anxiety” over the prospects for HDTV. However, Sikes said, “Now is not the time to get weak-kneed. Wead-kneed individuals and industries fall behind in dynamic markets.”

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