A key milestone in the transition to digital broadcasting is arriving, not with a bang, but a waiver — in fact, with lots of waivers.
Commercial TV stations that can't make the May 1 deadline for beaming digital signals have sought extensions from the Federal Communications Commission, ranging from six to 21 months. As of Feb. 28, 179 stations had sought waivers.
"I expect we are going to get more," said FCC Mass Media Bureau chief Roy Stewart last week, speaking to members of the National Association of Broadcasters gathered at a downtown Washington, D.C., hotel.
Another 160 stations will not make the deadline because they had not been granted permits to build DTV facilities, Stewart said.
As a result, the FCC is expecting at least 248 stations to miss the deadline. The agency gave stations until March 4 to file waivers.
Stations from around the U.S. began filing waiver requests two weeks ago. The FCC set the May 1 deadline in 1997, when it awarded every commercial TV station a digital TV license for free.
There are about 1,300 commercial TV stations in the U.S. Of those, 258 have met the digital deadline, according to the NAB.
The trade group expects about 30 percent of stations to miss it.
Stations that sought waivers submitted a two-page FCC form to briefly describe their hang-ups, such as technical, legal and financial problems. Some provided details, but many just checked boxes on the form.
Broadcasters cited zoning problems, pending litigation and financial problems as explanations for the delay.
The four FCC commissions are allowing Stewart and his staff to approve or reject waiver requests. One waiver — lasting until Dec. 12, 2003 — was granted to WMBC-DT in Newton, N.J. The station cited legal problems.
A few months ago, the FCC adopted rules designed to prevent a flood of waiver requests by allowing stations to launch a digital signal that did not need to replicate the coverage area of their existing analog signal. That was intended to keep the initial transition costs low.
Stewart said he and his staff would be "reasonable and balanced in our approach" to waiver reviews, especially with respect to those which state specific causes backed by hard data.
"You can't come in and say, 'Hey, Sept. 11,'" Stewart said.
The FCC is unlikely to accommodate TV stations that fail to inform the agency that they will miss the deadline.
"If you don't file, you are looking for trouble," Stewart said. "You are flirting with the idea that the commission is going to cancel your license or take your channel away."