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Hundt threatens digital TV delay

WASHINGTON — With broadcasters champing at the bit to take possession of their digital TV channels, FCC chairman Reed Hundt is threatening to delay the agency’s final vote on the issue, which had been expected to take place April 3.

The FCC is expected to release its agenda for next week’s commission meeting today, but the two outstanding digital issues still requiring a FCC vote will not be ready, according to FCC sources. The sticking point continues to be broadcasters’ timetable for rolling out digital television signals in the top 10 markets, sources said.

Hundt wants to have at least three digital stations in the top 10 markets within the next 18 months. But broadcasters say only San Francisco and Washington, D.C., will have three digital TV stations on the air by the end of 1998. Los Angeles will quickly catch up, and by June 1998 will have four stations on the air. Hunt wants the quick rollout so that consumers will begin buying digital TV sets during the 1998 Christmas season.

While Hundt says broadcasters are moving too slowly on digital TV, his three fellow commissioners are prepared to approve the rollout plan developed by the major webs, FCC insiders said. The problem remains that Hundt can use his role as chairman to block a vote.

Despite the last-minute negotiations, several FCC sources said they were optimistic that differences between Hundt and the other commissioners could still be resolved in time to vote on April 3. If the digital issues are not included on the agenda, industry reps may continue to lobby FCC officials.

Hundt also wants to write a rule that would force broadcasters to meet their digital timetable, but broadcasters want the FCC to take their word on the rollout.

The FCC decisions are critical because they will not only put the rules in place for the digital transition, but they also will decide which digital channel each of the nation’s 1,544 TV stations will be allotted. UHF stations also are lobbying the FCC heavily to allow them to boost the power on their digital transmissions. The UHFs claim the current plan does not give them the signal strength to penetrate concrete walls.

FCC sources said they are close to resolving differences over language that will be used to describe broadcasters’ public interest obligation in the digital era. President Clinton will soon appoint a White House blue-ribbon panel to decide what those obligations should be.

Although commissioners Rachelle Chong and James Quello are resisting strong public interest language, there is a tentative agreement to leave the question open-ended so that the panel’s recommendations can be implemented later. The panel is not expected to report back to the president for at least a year.

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