Editorial: FCC Needs Patience With HD Transition

Oct 20, 2003  •  Post A Comment

As if things weren’t tough enough already for small broadcasters, the Federal Communications Commission has been making things even tougher by denying deadline extensions for stations that have been unable to get their digital broadcast facilities operational on schedule. The FCC voted last week on the latest round of extension requests, rejecting requests from seven stations and warning those stations to get busy. It backed up its warnings with the threat of fines or even loss of licenses if they fail to make progress.
In the past the panel has issued admonishments to a much greater number of stations, mostly in small markets. We’re pleased that the FCC appears to be taking a more relaxed stance, but we think it would be wise at this point to grant all the extensions.
This is no time to put undue pressure on small stations, which are facing economic realities that make digital conversion at best impractical and at worst impossible. The FCC, which bears responsibility for lighting a fire under the sluggish conversion process, must understand the burden this hugely expensive conversion is putting on the backs of broadcasters.
As eager as the panel is to get the transition moving, it has become painfully clear that the shift to digital broadcast is an evolution, not a revolution. Like the shift from black-and-white to color in the 1950s and 1960s, and like the earlier shift from radio to television, it will take time.
Consumer demand, which will ultimately drive the transition, has not met expectations. One reason is the persistently sluggish economy, which is also a problem for stations being forced to convert. Those same economic forces have slowed development of digital programming and sales of high-definition consumer electronics, other keys to jump-starting the transition.
But as complex as the problems already are, denying station licenses would only compound them.
Smaller broadcasters, an increasingly rare breed, feel the pinch the most. And fining them or putting them out of business would serve only to fuel media concentration and consolidation, which already are out of control.
Regulators must be realistic about what they expect from broadcasters. At this point there is little economic incentive for stations, particularly those in small markets and those that remain independent of large corporations, to bear the expense of running a second broadcast facility. The reality is most of the marketplace is not yet equipped to receive digital programming, and most consumers appear in no hurry to make the transition to HD.
It is our impression the FCC is not interested in dishing out undue punishment to broadcasters. But we want to remind the panel to exercise caution and patience, keeping in mind the broader implications as it wields its power.