Target Date Moves for DTV Switch


Washington — Broadcasters and cable operators have several dates to circle on their 2009 calendars. Among them: Feb. 17 (which already should have been marked in red); March 14; April 18; and June 12, which is the new “hard” date for TV broadcasters to transition to digital from analog transmissions.

In fact, all those dates relate to the DTV transition.

President Obama on Feb. 11 signed the bill pushing the transition deadline to June 12 from Feb. 17.

Then the Federal Communications Commission stepped in, making that date a moving target broadcasters must convey to their viewers ASAP.

By press time, 368 stations had said they intend to go ahead and pull the analog plug on Feb. 17, as originally planned.

Another 123 stations — actually something less than that — that wanted to stick with the Feb. 17 switchover won't be able to without jumping through a number of FCC hoops that could effectively delay their analog cutoff to April 18, at least insofar as delivering a pared-down “nightlight” analog service.

The FCC is expected to scale back that 123 figure after including some stations that should not have been on the list.

About two-thirds of full-power TV stations are now expected to transition on June 12.

The FCC will let some of those stations pull the plug earlier, though, an agency official said last week.

There is also a March 14 analog cutoff date. That would be 90 days before June 12, when the FCC says stations can transition early, so long as they have given viewers sufficient notice.

On top of those numbers, an estimated 190 stations have either already pulled the plug — including in Hawaii and Wilmington, N.C. — or plan to do so even before Feb. 17.

Small wonder acting FCC chairman Michael Copps described the state of transition as “dislocation and confusion” last week — though he said things would have been even worse had the date had not been moved.

Last Friday (Feb. 13) was when the FCC required the mentioned 123 (or so) stations to let the agency know whether they planned to pull the plug on their analog simulcast, though not on their analog signal entirely.

The FCC will require those stations, or another station in the same market if that can be worked out, to keep an analog signal going for 60 days past Feb. 17 (hence April 18). That analog signal must contain public-affairs programming, news, DTV education and, if necessary, emergency information.

The FCC also was gearing up its call center for Feb. 17, when about one-third of the nation's TV stations will be going all-digital — except for the 100 stations that have said they will keep an analog “nightlight” signal on for another two weeks.

That adds March 3 to the list of analog cut-off dates to circle.

How is cable coping with the Hydra-headed DTV transition? “It is certainly more complicated,” said National Cable & Telecommunications Association vice president of communications Brian Dietz. “We will continue to stay in close contact with broadcasters at the local level and, at the industry level, NCTA and cable operators have been engaged in many conference calls to coordinate efforts and share information and will continue to do that to minimize any disruption that may happen.”

The cable industry has been instrumental in developing a national call center for DTV-related questions, which gets its first big test on Feb. 17. The industry pledged to continue that effort through the new June 12 date.