Hawaii DTV Transition Deadline's For The Birds

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Washington -- TV stations in Hawaii are in serious discussions to make the digital TV transition on Jan. 15 -- more than a month before the rest of the country -- partly to avoid disturbance to the nesting habitat of the endangered dark-rumped petrel near existing analog broadcast towers.

"At this point, we're contemplating that date very, very seriously and we're working with the government agencies involved. I cannot confirm that's an official date yet, but we're contemplating it very strongly," Mike Rosenberg, president and general manager of KITV, Hawaii's ABC affiliate, said Wednesday.

The dark-rumped petrel lives at sea near the Hawaiian and Galapagos islands. It comes ashore only to breed, according to the Web site www.whatbird.com. In Hawaii, the bird has made its nesting habitat near the analog TV towers at the mountain summit of Haleakala on the island of Maui.

Rosenberg, whose station is owned by Hearst Argyle Television Inc., has agreed to coordinate the effort for Hawaii's full-power broadcasters. That effort has involved discussions with the Federal Communications Commission and Capitol Hill lawmakers, including Senate Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat.

 Inouye has expressed concern that the DTV transition is being mismanaged by the FCC and the Bush administration, a failure that could result in millions of phone calls from frustrated consumers without TV service next February.

"We had a conversation [Tuesday] with the Commerce Committee, Sen. Inouye's staff and the National Association of Broadcasters. I know that the FCC is involved in this as well," Hawaii Association of Broadcasters president Chris Leonard said.

By law, all 1,756 full power TV stations are required to turn off their analog signals on Feb. 17, 2009 and rely exclusively on digital signals thereafter. Only the Wilmington, N.C., market has made the transition, an early test authorized by the FCC on Sept. 8.

The NAB had qualms about the Wilmington test because a $1.2 billion public education campaign funded by broadcasters and cable operators has tried to focus consumer attention on Feb. 17.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Commerce Department has been running a $1.5 billion program to subsidize consumer access to digital-to-analog converter boxes to extend the life of over-the-air analog TV sets. That program has also been emphasizing Feb. 17 as the national cutoff of analog TV.

Time Warner Cable, the dominant pay-TV provider in Hawaii, hasn't heard from the Hawaii stations about their potential Jan. 15 transition date. Cable operators need to prepare to receive digital signals at their central facilities or headends.

"If approached, we'd be happy to work with the broadcasters to discuss their needs regarding the transition," Time Warner Cable vice president of public relations Alex Dudley said.

Hawaii TV stations have found a new site on the mountain for their digital towers. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense and the University of Hawaii -- which have their own facilities at the Haleakala summit -- are pressing the TV stations to take down the analog towers immediately after the transition.

But the stations can't do that in February after the national DTV transition because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said doing so then could unsettle the dark-rumped petrel's nesting season, Rosenberg said.

"Some time in early February, they start nesting -- not in the towers but in the areas where the towers are located at the top of the mountain," Rosenberg said. "Fish and Wildlife has recommended -- and recommended is not strong enough a word -- that we need to deconstruct our present tower locations prior to February."

Rosenberg said that if the analog towers don't come down in January, the stations would have to wait a year to do so, and that would be untenable for the Pentagon and the University of Hawaii.

"We would be doing a disservice the Department of Defense and the University of Hawaii, who would like us out of there prior to that. They want to clean up the land," Rosenberg said.

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