Brings giant techno shift within reach

WASHINGTON — The FCC handed out 1,600 new digital TV channel assignments Wednesday, clearing the way for broadcasters across the country to make final investments in the biggest shift in television technology since the introduction of color.

The FCC action assigns a second channel to every TV station in the country, giving broadcasters the ability to transmit a high-definition signal that will offer CD-quality sound and a picture that is at least twice as clear as current analog pictures.

Broadcasters may also opt to use the new digital channel to squeeze five or more programming services into a slice of airwaves where they can now only fit one.

“We are pleased the FCC has settled on a channel assignment plan which now paves the way for a speedy rollout of the next generation of television,” said National Assn. of Broadcasters prexy Eddie Fritts.

UHF stations are also pleased with the new plan because it will allow them to boost the strength of their signal. “Without the ability to increase power, many of the UHF stations … would find it extremely difficult to justify the transition to digital transmission,” said Assn. of Local Television Stations prexy James Hedlund.

With their channel assignments in hand, broadcasters can make final purchase orders for antennas and other transmission equipment.

Digital television in L.A. now is only months away. KNBC, KTLA, KABC and KCBS have all promised the FCC to put a digital picture up by Nov. 1.

“We’re happy that the commission finally made its announcement of channel selections today. We believe we’ll make the deadline promised the FCC, which is to be on the air with digital TV beginning in November,” said KCBS’ Steve Blue, director of broadcast operations.

Others said it is not clear yet what impact the new assignments will have. “I don’t think that anyone knows what’s good and what’s bad yet. This thing just has to play itself out,” said KABC G.M. Arnie Kleiner.

Not all digital channel assignments are created equal, and in few places is that more true than in the crowded Los Angeles market. Despite claims by FCC officials that L.A. stations would see improvements over April’s preliminary channel assignments, most area stations found that their new digital slots cover even less of their current market.

The only big winner in the reshuffled channel assignments is KTLA, which moved from digital channel 68 to channel 31. The move also increased its digital coverage area from 80.8% of the market to 85.4% of its current audience. Other stations in the market saw modest decreases in the audience reach of their new channels, from 1.5% for KMEX to .4% for KLCS. FCC officials say Los Angeles presents a particularly troublesome market because of its mountainous terrain and proximity to San Diego.

In addition, assigning digital channels in L.A. is further complicated because of concerns about interfering with Mexican broadcasters.

Wednesday’s FCC decision is more than six weeks late. Despite pressure from broadcasters who want to get their digital channels up and running, the FCC delayed the final assignment while they bickered over how many channels to use during the transition from digital to analog.

Some at the FCC, including Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth, said the FCC should not allow broadcasters to use channels 2-5 during the transition. Furchtgott-Roth wanted to sell those channels to meet a congressional mandated goal of raising $5.4 billion from spectrum auctions.

But FCC engineers say that using a bigger chunk of spectrum will ensure that broadcasters will not run into trouble with interference during the estimated 9-to-15-year transition period. Interference is a major concern because the U.S. is doubling the number of operating TV signals in a very short period.

Although the FCC is keeping to its official plan to complete the transition by 2007, few expect the nation to be prepared to throw out current television sets in less than 10 years. Once the analog signals are shut off, current sets will be rendered obsolete. The federal government is eager for a speedy transition because once it is completed, auctioneers can sell off the current analog channels for big bucks.

The new plan, which uses all the channels between 2 and 51, will eventually allow the FCC to find room to add several television stations in major markets, said FCC sources. One FCC staffer said the plan anticipates three new television stations in Los Angeles and New York.

The licenses to those stations will be sold at auction, and it is the sale of those channels the FCC expects will make up the $2 billion shortfall by expanding the digital channels to 2-51 from 7-51.

(Ray Richmond in Los Angeles contributed to this story.)

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