Webs balk at digital timetable

WASHINGTON — FCC chairman Reed Hundt is meeting resistance from the major webs in his efforts to get them to complete a forced march to digital TV in the nation’s top 10 markets.

Hundt wants the webs to get their digital TV signals up and running within a year at their O&O stations in major cities. But the webs say they need at least two years to build the digital facilities at their O&Os.

The webs say they need the extra time because they have several issues to sort out. In addition to looming kinks in digital technology, many TV stations may have to build new antenna towers. Because building a TV tower involves local zoning and regulatory clearance, construction can sometimes take several years. The antenna industry also faces a crunch because there are only three companies in the U.S. licensed to build TV towers.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters also opposes Hundt’s proposed timetable. “There needs to be adequate flexibility to allow broadcasters to resolve their equipment, zoning and city problems,” said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.

But the FCC may be under some pressure from the Clinton administration to encourage a speedy transition to digital television. The White House’s proposed federal budget calls for every TV station and consumer in the U.S. to make the switch to digital within 10 years. Under the administration’s plan the current analog signal will be turned off in 2006 and the nation will rely solely on digital technology for television.

Despite the differences, broadcasters and FCC sources say the final digital TV rules are still on track to be finalized next month.

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