Washington -- Acting Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Copps would not pin
down when the agency would let the 491 stations that want to pull the plug on
analog broadcasting Feb. 17 know whether they will be able do so, but said some
guidance could be coming out later today.
In his first press conference since taking over as acting
chairman Jan. 20, Copps reiterated that the FCC would get back to stations with
an answer as soon as it could.
"All I can say is as soon as possible," Copps said, pointing
out that the commission was working with ridiculous or near-ridiculous kinds of
deadlines. He said that everyone had to understand that.
"We're down to a matter of days getting the word out to all
the stations and getting information in and feedback and guidance out," he
said. "It is a very trying challenge and we are trying to do that as quickly as
Copps said that "dislocation and confusion" are coming, but
that there would have been more of both if the DTV hard date had not been moved
from Feb. 17 to June 12 (as Congress voted to do last week).
Stations should be informing viewers about the Feb. 17
deadline -- per the FCC's implementation of the date-change bill -- even though
some won't be allowed to pull the plug on that date.
But he also said they could finesse the message. "I would
hope that stations and newsgathering folks at those stations will be going into
this in a little more depth, so that people can understand what is going on and
that this is a muddied situation and that is a part of the responsibility of
the station not just to carry the required notification, but to make sure
viewers are informed about what is going on and understand the options in more
Copps aide Rick Chessen said that the number of stations in
vulnerable markets where the FCC could prohibit them from pulling the plug could
be anywhere from low double digits to the triple digits.
Copps said he was pleased that almost two-thirds of stations
planned to remain on in analog, per a the bill passed last week that moves the
hard date to June 12.
The FCC is currently vetting those 491 requests to see which
stations in vulnerable markets may have to continue in analog.
Copps said those markets would probably be smaller to midsized
ones, pointing out that some broadcast groups had stepped up to help ensure
that most of the big markets were covered. "The larger markets, where we have
O&Os, thanks again to the wise decision and the public-interest decision of
the major networks, there will continue to be analog broadcasting."
Copps said that decision will be based on a number of
factors, including how many people in the market are on the DTV-to-analog
converter box coupon waiting list; whether all the stations in a market want to
go; or whether any analog newscasts would remain. "I think if we really know
that an area is replete with a lot of minorities, for example, or non-English
speaking and seniors and we have some information that there are a lot of
people on the converter-box waiting list."
Those stations, he said, would come under "special scrutiny"
and need compelling reasons to stay on. Those could include contracts related
to towers and antennas, he said, adding that the vetting was still a work in
Chessen said that all the stations in just less than 20
markets have asked to make the shift on Feb. 17.
The FCC may require one of the stations in each of those
markets to stay in analog. But rather than just saying no to stations, the
commission may require extra outreach or programming about the transition as
something of a quid pro quo for getting to go ahead and pull the plug.
"You could have people on the phones, you could have walk-in
centers, you could have somebody in the market staying on the air in analog to
provide some kind of programming," said Chessen. "Maybe having certain public-interest
requirements to protect consumers that would adequately protect consumers that
would let stations turn off absent a showing of contractual necessity. ... If
they agree to do certain programming or certain outreach or certain help for
consumers, that is another thing that is under consideration."
He called the DTV switch the "most demanding consumer-technology
transition in the history of broadcasting," adding that he had spent his first
few weeks trying to fill in the holes left by 20 months of the "happy but
mistaken belief that this was going to take care of itself."
The acting chairman said he did not know why President Obama
had yet to sign the bill moving the date to June 12, but said "the sooner the
better," as far as he was concerned.
Copps said that the FCC had enough funds to get through the
Feb. 17 switchover of potentially hundreds of stations, including for a
coordinated call center efforts, but he said it did not have enough money to
get through June 12. "Between now and June 12 we won't be able to continue the
efforts we have been making, let alone the significantly enhanced efforts I
would like to see without some additional resources," he said. "We are counting
on getting on some of those resources here if we are going to continue to be
asked to do as much as we are doing."
Chessen said it is possible the FCC could set an
intermediate date for stations that aren't switching Feb. 17, but don't want to
wait until June 12. That would be to help the various call centers. But he also
said the commission could ask stations when they planned to transition and use
that information to help call centers, rather than setting a particular date.
There is $90 million in the economic stimulus package that
the FCC can tap into.
Copps said he was interested in getting an update on the
number of production lines for DTV-to-analog converter boxes that are up and
running and what their capacity will be. The consumer-electronics industry has
suggested there could be converter-box shortages, particularly if a lot of
people reapply for subsidy coupons as the date-change bill allows.
Copps said he expects the agency to issue rulemakings
on consumer education for the stations not pulling the plug Feb. 17, and for
implementing the so-called analog nightlight program.