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Public Stations Offer DTV Plan

Mar 29, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Public television stations are floating a proposal that would allow them to more quickly make the switch to digital broadcasting and would relieve some of the pressing financial concerns related to the changeover.
They may be willing to switch to digital TV by the end of 2007 if the federal government agrees to give them a share of the billions of dollars in revenues from the anticipated auction of analog channels now used by noncommercial broadcasters.
In the DTV transition proposal circulated last week, public TV stations attached two additional strings to any deal: Guaranteed carriage of all their digital TV offerings on cable TV systems and the availability of low-cost digital-to-analog set-top conversion boxes for television receivers that aren’t connected to cable.
“The attainment of these policy goals would enable public television stations to seriously consider embracing DOB [digital-only broadcasting],” the Association of Public Television Stations said in a briefing paper.
Under the federal government’s existing DTV transition scheme, broadcasters are supposed to make the switch to digital by the end of 2006. That’s also when they are supposed to return their analog channels to the government for auction.
But there’s a loophole that allows broadcasters to keep their analog channels until 85 percent of the homes in their markets are able to receive digital signals. Industry and government officials said the 85 percent threshold may not be reached for a decade or more.
In the briefing paper circulated last week, APTS said 71 percent of its 142 member stations might be willing to make the transition to digital at the end of 2007 anyway-if the noncommercial industry’s request for an auction-financed trust fund and the other conditions were met. Without those assurances, APTS said, 76 percent of public stations would be unwilling to switch to digital until the end of 2010 or later.
Dual Expense
In an interview last week, John Lawson, APTS president and CEO, said a major motivator for public broadcasting to make the switch to DTV is the expense of running two transmitters-one for a station’s analog signal, another for the digital transmissions-during the transition to the new technology.
“The cost of dual analog/digital transmission is killing us,” Mr. Lawson said. “The cost of electricity alone to run those analog transmitters is $36 million a year. That’s equal to 20 percent of all the federal money that goes to our stations.”
Mr. Lawson said the feedback that the proposal has been getting on Capitol Hill has been positive, though key lawmakers share the concern of public broadcasters that a flash-cut transition could disenfranchise owners of the more than 80 million analog TV receivers that aren’t currently hooked up to cable or satellite. (Mr. Lawson said 14 percent of the 105 million TV households don’t subscribe to cable or satellite. The additional sets are those in satellite and cable homes that aren’t connected to the services.)
“It’s a big fly [in the ointment],” Mr. Lawson said. “TV is considered essential by Americans. You can’t just disenfranchise all those people.”
In addition, the APTS chief said public broadcasters have yet to put a figure on how much they would like to see included in the government trust fund for public broadcasting. But in its briefing paper, APTS said wireless telephone companies recently estimated the value of a 10 megahertz swath of national spectrum at anywhere between $3.5 billion and $7.2 billion. APTS said public TV stations currently control about 80 MHz of analog TV spectrum.
“With public television stations in the unique position of holding a very valuable asset, there may be a window of opportunity to leverage the good will on the tremendous revenue the government would generate from the early return of its analog spectrum,” APTS said.
Also in the interest of expediting the DTV transition, top Federal Communications Commission staffers have been promoting a plan to change the agency’s must-carry regulations to require cable operators to carry a broadcaster’s digital signal only-instead of the broadcaster’s analog signal-at the end of 2006. Sources said that under the plan, cable operators also would be required to convert the digital broadcast signal to analog to ensure that it is available to all cable subscribers equipped with analog receivers. According to the FCC’s argument, all of those subscribers reached through the cable system could then be counted toward a market’s 85 percent penetration threshold, a change that would give a significant boost to the transition.
Concerns Raised
But broadcast industry officials and their allies on Capitol Hill are raising concerns that the FCC’s scheme could force consumers to buy digital-to-analog converters for the 80 million analog television sets that aren’t hooked up to satellite or cable.
“This puts people who can least afford this transition-low-income and poor families-in the position of having to spend far more in the immediate future just to continue to receive free, over-the-air television,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., in a March 18 letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell.
“I hope that before pursuing this policy any further, you and your staff will consider the ramifications for all segments of America and pursue policies that do not cause economic harm [to] people who can ill afford it.”