Between a quarter and a third of all TV stations want to go ahead and pull the plug on analog Feb. 17, which could make for what is effectively a staggered start to the DTV era, depending on how many the FCC allows to switch on that date.
A total of 491 TV stations have told the FCC they want to make the transition to digital Feb. 17, according to a just-released list from the commission. Another 190 have already switched or are doing so before the original hard date.
It is now up to the FCC to let the other stations know whether they will be permitted to transition or not.
Any station the FCC decides can't go early--because it is not in the public interest--will receive the news "promptly," says the commission's public notice. However, the agency did not give a date as to when it would inform the stations. It will have to be prompt -- even if the FCC lets them know today Feb. 10, they have only one week to change their plans.
Congress has passed a bill to extend the hard date to June 12, though President Obama has yet to sign it into law. The president's delay has media and regulatory camps scratching their heads, since the administration was pushing for quick passage of the bill given the looming deadline.
The FCC has already released the rules implementing the bill, with language that finesses it in case something happened to prevent its signing; the FCC could not wait for the president's signature and meet the deadline.
The agency had required broadcasters to tell it by midnight Monday whether they wanted to go ahead with the Feb. 17 cut-off of analog signals the government had mandated before changing the deadline last week.
There are not guarantees, though for the early change. That is because the FCC has put a public-interest caveat on the move, saying they will have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. For example, the FCC would think twice before allowing all the major stations in a market with a high percentage of analog-only viewers to pull the plug Feb. 17.
The FCC and some members of Congress have urged stations to do their own public interest, weighing the effects of making the switch-over on Feb. 17 and act accordingly.
A number of major station owners, including Fox, NBC, CBS, ABC and Gannett, have said they won't go early, while others have said for economic or scheduling reasons they have to because the government has been telling them for years to make the move.
"We'll try to work with broadcasters to make this as seemless as possible for everybody," says FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, "but we do need to protect consumers, and part of that is to make sure that there is some analog signal in each market."
So, some broadcasters may wind up having to stay on even if they don't want to. "That remains to be seen," he said," but hopefully it will all be voluntary."
One broadcast executive surmised that the 491 stations was far higher than the FCC had expected, and predicted that the FCC will be "taking stations to task" over an noncomliance with the details for going early, which include an extremely accelerated and condensed schedule of PSAs and crawls informing viewers of that fact.
The executive noted that there was no way for many stations, including his, to run automated crawls. He said that while having to file the request to go early was not a big cost, he is concerned about the legal expenses if he fails to meet the FCC's regimen for alerting viewers to a Feb. 17 cut-off.
He joked that since Monday is a federal holiday (Presidents Day), "a lot of us are expecting to hear from the FCC at 4:59 on Friday the 13th that we can [or can't] go."
According to the FCC's own rules regarding the date change implementation, any station that wants to go early has to start airing a crawl every five minutes of every hour starting at 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 10. If the FCC does not inform the stations it won't be allowing to make that move within the next few hours, some may be informing viewers they are swtiching on Feb. 17, when, in fact, they are not.
An FCC spokesperson was checking the meaning of "promptly" at press time, though one out may have been language that said, "if technically feasible," they had to start airing the crawl.
Arguably it would not be technically feasible to air the crawl if a station did not know whether it could transition or not, meaning that stations may not have to comply with that Feb. 10 date until they hear one way or the other from the FCC.
Glen Dickson contributed to this story.