FCC Eases DTV Transition Rules

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After months of lobbying, broadcasters last week convinced the Federal Communications Commission to adopt new policies designed to ease the financial burden in making the transition to digital television.

In a series of moves, the FCC relaxed certain policies without actually changing the May 1, 2002 deadline for all 1,300 commercial TV stations to have a digital signal on the air.

In a unanimous vote, the FCC said TV stations could begin the transition at lower power levels and ramp up from there. That will save broadcasters the expense of buying full-market facilities and paying high electric bills in the transition's early stages.

Under a prior rule overturned by last week's action, the FCC had required broadcasters to replicate their analog signals with DTV transmissions by Dec. 31, 2004, or run the risk of losing interference protection from other users of the spectrum in unreplicated areas.

In another decision, the FCC required DTV stations to be on the air during primetime or 22 hours a week, but not 24 hours a day.

TV stations still have the right to seek waivers from the May 1 deadline, but the FCC said those stations must make a solid showing of financial hardship. Waivers must be filed at least 60 days prior to the deadline using an FCC-issued form.

FCC member Kathleen Abernathy said the overall goal was to reduce up-front costs and allow more stations to begin transmitting a digital signal.

"It should speed the transition to a digital world, and I know that's what all of us want," Abernathy said. "I don't expect we will see a lot of waivers."

Democratic FCC member Michael Copps said he was pleased the agency declined to grant blanket waivers with no showing of hardship.

"That would have been, I think, highly unfair to those who are moving toward full performance and it would have been far too lenient on those who are far less along," Copps said.

FCC chairman Michael Powell said he endorsed the plan to "pump some energy" into the digital transition. He said he expects the new rules should save the FCC from dealing with a flood of waivers. Any waiver, he said, would receive close scrutiny.

"No one should mistake that the simplification of process is the functional equivalent of a light standard. The commission has no intention of granting a general waiver," Powell said.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which applauded the FCC's move, released a survey in August showing two-thirds of stations polled expected to meet the May 2002 deadline. But the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 may have made that poll unreliable.

FCC Mass Media Bureau chief Roy Stewart put TV stations owners on notice that he would personally recommend yanking a DTV license if a waiver applications is devoid of compelling reasons.

"If you don't make a good-faith waiver showing, that may put in play your permit," said Stewart, who emphasized that he was speaking for himself and not the four FCC commissioners.