Webs in dilemma over Digital TV

WASHINGTON — ABC, CBS and other broadcasters filed a petition at the FCC last week that calls for an overhaul of the agency’s assignment of digital TV channels. The proposed revisions are so extensive that they present a significant threat of delay in next year’s planned rollout of digital service.

The broadcasting industry is divided over the proposal, with NBC and Fox refusing to sign on to the last-minute request. At stake are the digital TV assignments every TV station in the country must live with for at least the next 10 years.

Tribune joined the effort by ABC and CBS in part because it is concerned about the reach of its digital signal, which will cover only 80% of the Los Angeles market. Like the other broadcasters signing on to the FCC petition, Tribune also is worried that the FCC has not accounted for the possibility of digital television signals interfering with each other.

“We seriously believe that there is a problem with DTV-to-DTV interference that the FCC didn’t factor in,” said Tribune’s D.C. rep Shawn Sheehan, senior VP. Sheehan and others who signed on to the petition filed last week at the FCC said the possibility of digital channels interfering with each other is a critical consumer issue.

“Let’s make sure that the signals have integrity, so that people who buy (digital) sets have something to watch,” said Sheehan, who conceded that a revision of the channel chart could delay the rollout of digital TV, which is planned for next year. “If the industry is able to present very real technical problems, then the date ought to be pushed back,” said Sheehan.

ABC spokesman Bill Pitts said the proposed changes do not necessarily mean the digital rollout will be knocked off schedule.

“If the FCC makes this a priority, we can still make the timetable,” he contended.

Like other broadcast reps, Pitts said digital TV should be the FCC’s most urgent concern. The important thing, Pitts stressed, is that the FCC start working on resolving the problems right away.

At least 26 TV stations are expected to be up and running with a digital signal by next Christmas, according to the current plan. It was just two weeks ago that ABC filed a petition at the FCC warning the agency that if it didn’t assign channels by Dec. 31, the Alphabet web would have a hard time living up to its promise of putting digital signals on the air by Nov. 1, 1998, in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Pol chimes in

Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) urged the FCC to put a high priority on a speedy rollout of digital broadcasting, but also noted that the interference issue is a valid concern. “The commission’s most important task in the digital television conversion process is to assure that digital television service will be launched according to schedule and without causing widespread disruption in viewers’ ability to receive off-air signals,” wrote McCain in a letter to FCC chairman Bill Kennard. McCain added that the FCC should restructure the channel table only “as a last resort.”

ABC, CBS and Tribune filed an alternative channel lineup for the FCC to consider, but it could take several months for the agency to give the proposal a thorough examination. One political flaw with the plan is that it borrows from spectrum between channels 60 and 69. Congress has ordered the FCC to set aside as much of that spectrum as possible so it can be used by police and fire departments along with other public safety agencies.

In addition to NBC and Fox, there are other broadcasters who are not happy with the FCC’s current channel plan but opted against challenging it. Execs at the Sinclair Broadcast Group are among the harshest critics of the FCC’s plan because they say it discriminates against UHF stations. Under the FCC’s plan many VHF stations will broadcast with 50 times the power of UHF stations. The FCC says the VHF stations need the boost to replicate their serving area.

Despite its ongoing opposition to the power gap, Sinclair wants to keep moving forward rather than stop now to revisit the whole channel plan. “We don’t see the point of jumping from plan to plan like a grasshopper on a hot day,” said Sinclair’s Nat Ostroff.

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