ABC gives FCC deadline for digital launch dope

WASHINGTON — ABC has warned the Federal Communications Commission that it better finalize its list of digital channel assignments by Jan. 2, or KABC may miss its goal of putting a digital signal on the air by Nov. 1, 1998.

Like other major networks, ABC volunteered earlier this year to launch a digital TV signal at selected TV stations by next fall. The two other stations in Los Angeles targeting the Nov. 1 digital deadline are Tribune’s KTLA and NBC’s KNBC. Both NBC and Tribune say so far they are on track to meet the deadline.

The FCC cajoled broadcasters into making the Nov. 1 promise in an effort to jump-start the sales of digital TV sets for the next Christmas shopping season. While the November deadline is voluntary, every network affiliate in the top-ten markets faces a mandatory deadline of completing their digital TV construction by May of 1999.

But in comments filed at the FCC, ABC said that it can’t order necessary equipment for KABC until it gets final word from the FCC on its channel assignment. In addition to the digital TV channel number, the FCC allocation also tells broadcasters how high their antenna can be and how much they can use to boost their signal.

ABC also warned that it faced a similar delay in Philadelphia where it also planned to put a digital version of WPVI on the air by Nov. 1 of next year. In San Francisco, ABC said it needed to hear from the FCC by Feb. 1 in order to meet the Nov. 1 deadline.

Senior FCC officials said Tuesday that staffers expect to complete work on the final channel assignments in early December, leaving enough time for a final commission vote by the end of the year.

Although ABC was the only network to emphasize it’s impatience with the FCC in its comments, other networks also warned that major alterations in final allotment table could lead to missed deadlines.

The FCC issued its initial list of digital channel assignments earlier this year and has received dozens of requests for changes. In addition to telling broadcasters what their digital channel number will be, the assignment table also tells broadcasters how tall their antenna can be and how much power they can use to broadcast a signal. A change to any element in the table can affect every TV station in the market and even stations in other markets.

It takes several advanced computers working full time for several weeks to sort out the variables involved in assigning antenna heights, signal strengths and channel assignments to all 1,600 TV stations in the U.S., according to FCC engineers.

And its not just the FCC that could cause delays. In San Francisco, KGO, Chronicle’s KRON and CBS’ KPIX are expecting local opposition to plans to relocate several analog antennas to make for the new digital antennas. CBS, NBC and ABC all warned the FCC that extended litigation could delay the digital roll-out in San Francisco.

In New York, WNBC is negotiating with the Port Authority for permission to construct a digital TV antenna on top of the World Trade Center. If those talks fall through, NBC may be forced to look elsewhere, creating another potential delay. WCBS, the only other Gotham TV station expected to go digital by November of next year, has secured a site on top of the World Trade Center.

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