Veteran Federal Communications Commmission broadcast-TV regulator Roy Stewart said he was surprised at the high number of local TV stations that won't meet the agency's digital-TV deadline.
About 65 percent of TV stations — 856 in all — are not planning to meet the FCC's May 1 deadline for the start of digital broadcasting. That deadline was set five years ago, when each TV station was given a free DTV license. Those licenses are collectively worth billions of dollars.
"I sort of felt maybe if we would have half that amount, that would be a high number. So I was surprised we had such a large number of them," said Stewart, the former Mass Media Bureau chief who now heads the Office of Broadcast License Policy in the newly formed Media Bureau.
Stewart said 810 stations sought extensions and 476 have been granted a six-month reprieve. Another 354 stations recently received letters asking for additional justification for their inability to meet the deadline. He spoke at an April 7 forum here sponsored by the American Bar Association, the FCC and the National Association of Broadcasters.
"When responses come back, we will analyze them," Stewart said.
Later in the week, FCC commissioner Kevin Martin said, "The number of [extension] requests were unexpected."
But he cautioned that many more DTV stations should be on the air within six months.
"It will be a vastly different world in the next six months," Martin said.
Marsha MacBride, chief of staff to FCC chairman Michael Powell, viewed the extension requests as a bump in the road.
"In the grand scheme of things, we are moving ahead like we should," she said.
According to the NAB, 271 stations now transmit digital signals; 62 of them are public broadcasters. Based on the NAB's numbers, another 244 commercial stations are scheduled to put their digital signals on the air by May 1.
Generally, FCC officials have said they understood that TV stations confronted financial, technical and legal obstacles as the May 1 deadline nears. The agency might not be so accommodating if stations that have already been granted six-month extensions seek additional time, he said.
"If you come in after six months and say what you said before, I am not so sympathetic to that," he said.
Martin backed that position, to some extent, when he said that if more DTV stations weren't operating by Nov. 1, that would indicate a "serious problem."