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Stations not ready for DTV

Mar 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

In a setback for digital TV’s rollout, more than half the nation’s commercial TV stations told the Federal Communications Commission last week that they won’t be able to meet the agency’s deadline for launching digital TV operations this year.
Under a long-pending agency plan for moving broadcasters to DTV, all commercial stations were supposed to throw the switch on DTV operations no later than May 1.
But at deadline, 650 of the nation’s 1,288 commercial stations (just over 50 percent) had filed applications at the FCC seeking waivers allowing them to duck the obligation for at least six months.
Broadcast industry critics said the mountain of waiver requests offered further proof that broadcasters, which received a free second TV channel to make the switch, are in no hurry to make a transition that will force them to return to the government one of their two channels.
“It’s evidence that the official plan isn’t working,” said Andrew Schwartzman, president of the activist Media Access Project.
“It’s really time for Congress to come in,” added Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.
But broadcasters blamed the delays on a variety of technical, legal and financial factors-including the precipitous free fall of advertising revenues in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“This is primarily a small-market to middle-market issue,” said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. “The good news is that many of these stations will be on in a fairly short time, according to their filings.”
Among the key technical impediments, according to the filings, has been that antenna tower installation companies are facing backlogs.
“The problem is there aren’t any DTV tuners in sets and there aren’t DTV stations getting carried on cable,” added Greg Schmidt, VP of new development and general counsel for LIN Television, which requested extensions for six of its 12 TV stations.
Pappas Telecasting executives declined comment on their waiver filings. But a canvass of the FCC’s records showed that Pappas sought waivers for most of its 19 stations, citing a variety of technical, legal and financial reasons.
In a filing seeking an extension for its ABC affiliate KHGI-TV in Lincoln, Neb., Pappas noted that it was running three other stations in the same market-KWNB-TV, a full-power satellite for the ABC signal, Fox affiliate KTVG-TV and its full-power satellite KSNB-TV through time brokerage agreements.
“Pappas Telecasting currently does not have adequate cash flow to support the major capital expenditures involved in constructing digital facilities,” the company said in its filings, citing a net loss of $3 million through the first 11 months of last year-and total debt of $19 million. “Obtaining additional financing at the present time is not a viable option.”
Also pleading financial hardship was Granite Broadcasting.
The FCC was declining comment on the waiver requests last week.