Public television stations are considering shutting down their analog-TV service on an agreed-upon specified date, but only if cable and satellite guarantee carriage of all digital-programming services any one public station can transmit.
"Any plan for an early return of analog spectrum is dead without guarantees -- either negotiated or mandated -- that all of our stations' digital signals are carried on cable and direct-broadcast satellite systems," said John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations, in a prepared statement Friday.
Commercial and public TV stations awarded digital licenses have to surrender their analog licenses to the Federal Communications Commission on the later date of Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85% of TV homes in their markets can receive off-air digital-TV signals. Most observers believe the 85% test won't be met for many years.
FCC rules do not allow holders of analog- and digital-TV licenses to demand cable carriage for their digital services. If a TV station is eligible for digital must-carry, the station is entitled to cable carriage of a single programming service, and not carriage of multiple services, as contemplated under APTS' plan.
The FCC does not have rules covering DBS carriage of digital-TV signals.
However, Lawson's announcement came at a time when the commission is reconsidering whether to lift the ban on multicast must-carry. Earlier this week, a Burbank, Calif., company promised the FCC that it would launch a broadcast network solely for kids if the agency mandated cable carriage of multiple digital broadcasting services.
A plan to go all-digital has to take into account millions of homes with analog-TV sets that would need converter boxes or pay TV services to continue receiving public television.
In his statement, Lawson noted that the city of Berlin made the switch in August by "marketing set-tops" to its 160,000 off-air-only households.
The switch would save the nation's public stations $23 million annually in duplicative electricity costs and would free up valuable spectrum for alternative uses. But Lawson said the analog shutdown was a proposal just taking shape.
"There are obviously many challenges to weigh before proceeding, and I must emphasize that this is the beginning of a process that will involve extensive research at the legislative, regulatory and consumer-market levels," Lawson said.
A few commercial TV stations have made the switch. The first was WWAC-DT in Atlantic City, N.J., last December.