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FCC DTV Transition Action - Summary

April 26, 2007

The FCC is moving ahead to ensure that the transition doesn't fall into a sinkhole. At its April Open Meeting yesterday, it adopted action on several DTV transition fronts. While the complete details are not yet available, pending release of the "Report & Order" and/or "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" for each action, we now know the outline.

Labeling of analog-only TVs

The FCC is requiring labels on or near analog-only sets in retail stores, as well as in catalogs and on-line listings.

While the import and transport across state lines of analog only sets was banned as of March 1, many retailers seem to have stocked up on these sets and are still selling large numbers of them. This new labeling requirement is very late (about 11 million analog sets were sold last year), and may be later still.

None of the Commissioners noted the effective date of the new rule, and neither did the press release. The Order itself has not yet been released. If the requirement is not effective immediately, or within a few weeks, it will be moot. Another 2.5 million analog TVs are expected to be sold this year.

The required language:

Consumer Alert
This television receiver has only an analog broadcast tuner and will require a converter box after February 17, 2009, to receive over-the-air broadcasts with an antenna because of the Nation's transition to digital broadcasting. Analog-only TVs should continue to work as before with cable and satellite TV services, gaming consoles, VCRs, DVD players, and similar products. For more information, call the Federal Communications Commission at 1-888-225-5322 (TTY: 1-888-835-5322) or visit the Commission's digital television website at:

Broadcaster Requirements

As I recently noted, many broadcasters have had a somewhat relaxed attitude toward the transition, expecting a permissive regulatory environment. That is, being late would not be a problem. The measures announced by the FCC yesterday attempt to disabuse them of those thoughts.

Some 600 stations will be moving to new digital channels at the end of the transition (they are now operating on interim channels), and hundreds of other stations who are on their final channel are not yet broadcasting at full digital power. So there is still lots to do.

Specific rules were not adopted yesterday. Rather, the Commission is going to release a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that seeks comment on the following actions, among others, to facilitate the transition for full-power television stations:

- Restrict the grant of future extensions of time to construct digital facilities;

- Offer expedited processing to stations applying for a construction permit for their post-transition channel based on the new DTV Table of Allotments;

- Examine the circumstances in which stations may reduce or terminate analog service to facilitate construction of post-transition facilities; (this is good)

- Permit stations that have different pre-transition and post-transition channels to devote their resources to building their post-transition channel; (in other words, don't be so picky about their interim compliance)

- Require stations by December 1st, 2007 to file a form with the Commission detailing the current status of the station's digital transition, the additional steps the station must take before the transition deadline, and a plan for how the station intends to meet the deadline; (this gives the FCC and the station a year to identify and resolve issues)

- Establish February 17, 2009 as the construction deadline for stations with new channel allotments in the upcoming new DTV Table of Allotments. (this lets stations know in advance that the FCC will not entertain proposals for later compliance)

Cable Carriage of Digital Broadcast Signals

This is another Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (the actual NPRM has not yet been released).

The Commissioners noted that most people in the U.S. get their TV programming via a cable TV service. Of those cable subscribers, half are still getting analog service--that's 32 million households. The FCC is therefore concerned that those subscribers will continue to receive broadcast network programming after the end of the transition, when those networks shut down their analog signals.

Therefore, the FCC is proposing that cable operators must either:

(1) carry the signals of all must-carry stations in an analog format to all analog cable subscribers (in addition to carrying digital signals for their digital subscribers), or

(2) for all-digital cable systems, carry those signals only in digital format, provided that all subscribers have the necessary equipment to view the broadcast content.

So far, the "must-carry" channels include the primary channel of major broadcasters (i.e. this does not include secondary, multi-cast, or sub-channels).

Subscribers would not be forced to rent set-top-boxes from the cable company as part of this proposed requirement (they would be "free," that is--the cost would be folded into the regular subscription price).

The FCC reaffirmed yesterday that cable systems must carry high definition ("HD") broadcast signals in HD that are not materially degraded from the broadcast original. The FCC is asking for comment on whether it should move from a subjective (eyeball) to an objective measure of what constitutes material degradation.

One alternative proposed would be to require that all "content bits" transmitted by the broadcaster be carried by the cable operator. Another alternative would be that cable operators merely treat HD broadcast signals the same as other HD cable programming. In other words, if they give you awful low-bit-rate cable channel HD, they don't have to do any better with HD programming from network broadcasters.

Commissioner Adelstein seemed to be for the latter, on the presumption that cable providers would want to please their subscribers by ensuring good picture quality. The presumption is that degraded HD quality would be readily apparent to their subscribers (with nothing to compare it to) and they would switch providers (to what?). All of his views seemed to be pro-cable industry.

Regulation of Violence on TV

The anti-violence proposals were published separately from the FCC Open Meeting yesterday; I will do a separate article.

Also, after the actual final documents are released on the above-reported proceedings, I may have something more to say about them.