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B’casters lay digital plans

WASHINGTON — Broadcasters revealed Friday for the first time their plans for the digital TV rollout in the nation’s largest markets, but the proposal failed to impress FCC officials, who say the ramp-up is too slow.

In a meeting with top-level Federal Communications Commission officials, broadcasters revealed that Los Angeles would lead the transition to digital with four operating stations, including digital versions of Tribune’s KTLA and NBC’s O&O KNBC. While Los Angeles will have four digital stations within six years, New York will only have one. That station will be operated by CBS’ O&O WCBS.

FCC chairman Reed Hundt has been pushing for the conversion of every O&O in the top 10 markets by the end of 1998. But on Friday the industry counteroffer was a promise to have at least one digital TV station in the top 10 markets within three years. However, nine out of the top 10 markets will have at least one digital TV station within two years. The timetable depends on the FCC issuing digital licenses this year.

Citing the webs’ plan for the roll-out, FCC officials said more negotiations need to take place. “They came in but we clearly need to keep talking,” said one FCC staffer.

Within two years of receiving its digital licenses, Fox plans to build digital stations in Dallas and Detroit. In addition, CBS plans facilities in Boston and New York; NBC will add two digital stations, one each in D.C. and L.A.; and ABC plans digital stations in Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Cox Broadcasting plans to build a digital facility in Atlanta and the LIN Television group plans a digital station in Dallas, according to one source. Within three years, the broadcasters’ plan would provide at least one digital signal to approximately 30% of the nation.

The Clinton administration would like to see a speedy conversion to digital TV so the analog frequencies currently used by TV stations can be reclaimed and sold at auction, but broadcasters insist it is going to take time to complete the technological transition.

Not only will the switch to digital be expensive, especially in the early years, but many broadcasters say they need to build new towers to support the digital transmissions. The construction of towers means stations must run a regulatory gauntlet that ranges from local zoning officials to the Federal Aviation Administration. The slow rollout of digital TV in New York is being blamed on scarcity of space for new towers in Gotham.

National Assn. of Broadcasters prexy Eddie Fritts recently noted that there are only three companies licensed to build TV towers taller than 1,000 feet. And those three companies operate a total of nine crews, according to Fritts. “The FCC is pushing an illogical and unreasonable plan,” said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.

The dispute over the digital rollout could slow down the FCC’s plans to wrap up its rulemakings on digital TV next month, sources say. Final rules are expected to begin circulating in the four commissioners’ offices this week.

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