FCC to limit power cuts at DTV stations

Aug 5, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Getting tough about the digital TV rollout, a top Federal Communications Commission official told Electronic Media last week that broadcasters will no longer be allowed to routinely operate DTV stations at reduced power.
“We’ve made no bones about the fact that we’re going to push this process along,” said Ken Ferree, chief of the FCC’s Media Bureau.
As it stands, according to the FCC, 232 of the nation’s 450 DTV stations on air have been cleared to operate at power levels well below their authorized maximums, with most of the reductions primarily aimed at slashing energy costs.
At least according to broadcasters, economizing makes sense because the electricity to keep a digital TV transmitter at full power can cost up to $30,000 a month-and few consumers are equipped to receive the signals anyway.
“It’s just crazy,” said one of the broadcasters affected. “There’s nobody watching.”
“Would George Steinbrenner pay to light Yankee Stadium 24 hours a day when no games are being played?” added a National Association of Broadcasters board member, who asked not to be identified.
But according to Mr. Ferree, power cuts will only be permitted from now on if broadcasters can present a convincing rationale for special consideration, such as financial hardship.
“It can’t be, `Gee, we really want to,”’ Mr. Ferree said. “They have to show there’s a continuing need.”
Some of the broadcasters affected by the crackdown said that requiring full-power operation is unfair punishment for stations that spent millions of dollars to install top-of-the-line DTV systems. “Even at half power, we’re transmitting more than cheaper [broadcast DTV] systems would do,” one broadcaster said.
The new policy is particularly painful, according to broadcasters, because the FCC has yet to force other major players with significant stakes in the rollout-cable operators and consumer electronics manufacturers-to make major investments in the technological transition.
At deadline, sources said the FCC was slated to vote on a proposal this week that would require consumer electronics manufacturers to include DTV tuners in all TV sets by 2006.
But even so, according to broadcasters, it makes little sense to deny them the opportunity to save energy costs in the meantime.
“For the next year or two, what’s the difference?” a broadcaster said. “It’s not like we’re stranding viewers.”
Among the DTV stations that were recently refused permission by the FCC to continue operating at half power was WJXT-TV in Jacksonville, Fla. Sherry Burns, the station’s VP and general manager, said WJXT-TV’s DTV station can cover its service area at half power. “We’re very disappointed, but our attorneys are looking at other options,” she said.
Also recently refused permission to continue operating at reduced power, according to the FCC, were WUSA-TV, Washington; KHOU-TV, Houston; WJLA-TV, Washington; KOMO-TV, Seattle; KFMB-TV, San Diego; WHDH-TV, Boston; KRON-TV, San Francisco; WOFL-TV, Orlando, Fla.; KPHO-TV, Phoenix; KGW-TV, Portland, Ore.; KMOV-TV, St. Louis; KSDK-TV, St. Louis; WTSP-TV, St. Petersburg, Fla.; KARE-TV, Minneapolis; KPTV, Portland, Ore.; and WLMT-TV, Memphis, Tenn.
The DTV tuner mandate, according to sources, mirrors a voluntary proposal of FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s that the consumer electronics industry spurned.
Dennis Wharton, an NAB spokesman, said the tuner mandate “will represent a giant leap forward in advancing the DTV transition.”
But Jeff Joseph, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association, said his group would fight the initiative.
“We still oppose tuner mandates, and we still think this amounts to a TV tax for consumers,” Mr. Joseph said. “If the FCC moves forward with an order, we will consider all options to oppose it and try to ensure that consumers don’t have to assume this unnecessary cost.”