FCC speeds up digital process

NEW ORLEANS – Convinced that Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain’s efforts to auction digital spectrum are doomed to failure, the FCC has put two pending decisions on the fast track, FCC aides said Sunday at a panel session of the Assn. of Local Television Stations (ALTV).

The Federal Communications Commission may even beat the congressionally imposed deadline of April 1 for the two critical rules, Julius Genachowski, legal adviser to FCC chairman Reed Hundt, told the several hundred station execs on hand for the session. Conclusion of the FCC’s decision will mark the official start of the race among broadcasters to launch their digital TV services.

Lack of support

McCain lacks support for the auctions among members of his own political party, said House Commerce Committee staffer Catherine Wallace. “I don’t think (digital auctions) are going to happen, but unfortunately the debate will continue,” she said. Last year, the House defeated a proposal to auction spectrum by overwhelming margins.

Still pending at the FCC is a decision that will establish public interest rules in the digital age. In addition to their current obligations, Hundt is pushing broadcasters to set aside 5% of their channel capacity for public interest programming, including free airtime for political candidates.

Changing channels

In its second ruling, the FCC will tell broadcasters which channels they will be allowed to use for the transition to digital TV. The FCC would like to reserve channels 60 through 69 for a spectrum auction, but broadcasters say they need those airwaves to ensure a smooth transition to digital TV, or else digital signals may interfere with analog signals.

Asked if the FCC had made any headway in resolving the matter, Genachowski replied: “It will take some modest tinkering of the (FCC) plan (to make it) work for everyone.”

The jump to digital will cost each TV station between $6 million and $20 million, according to the National Assn. of Broadcasters’ Chuck Sherman, senior VP, television. The price varies according to a station’s market size and availability of antenna space on its existing tower, Sherman said.

Startup costs

But FCC plans & policy chief Robert Pepper noted that a broadcaster could begin broadcasting a digital signal for as little as $750,000, provided the station has adequate tower capacity.

The lower price will allow the station to pass through a high-definition signal but will not cover the much more expensive cost of local HDTV production. NBC has said publicly it will make its primetime schedule HDTV-compatible as early as next season.

During the past year, competition from the cable and satellite industries has focused broadcaster attention on digital transition issues, Sherman said, noting that a survey of more than 400 broadcast stations found that 79% expect to make the transition within five years. About 87% of stations in the top 25 markets hope to make the transition in five years.

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