Worries about how the DTV transition is being handled


Commentary from Amy Brown, Executive Director and Secretary of the Community Broadcasters Association, which represents more than 2,900 Class A and Low Power TV Stations in the US.

Imagine this…

The FCC and NTIA are being short-sighted in their efforts to complete the digital television transition.  One hand doesn’t seem to know what the other hand is doing.  Don’t be surprised when the public ends up confused!

While full power TV stations must stop analog broadcasting on February 17, 2009, Class A and LPTV stations and TV translators don’t have a deadline.  Most of them are likely to keep their analog signals on the air for several more years.

Congress appropriated money for NTIA to help analog TV translators buy converters, so that they can pick up digital full power signals and rebroadcast them in analog.  That was a great public service and will keep major network and independent services coming to rural and mountainous areas that have trouble receiving distant full power stations.

But wait…!

Congress also gave NTIA money to issue $40 coupons to the public to pay for DTV converter boxes that will let them watch digital stations on their analog TV sets – another great service.  But guess what?  NTIA is certifying converters that not only convert digital signals but actually block analog signals, so that users can’t watch analog Class A, LPTV, and TV translator stations any more.  So the government is financing continued broadcasting by analog translators and then is paying for boxes that will prevent viewers from watching those same stations!? Now does that make sense?

The Community Broadcasters Association (“CBA”) asked NTIA to require converter boxes to pass through analog signals, but NTIA refused.  CBA has now filed a petition with the FCC pointing out that boxes which block analog signals violates the All Channel Receiver Act – the same law that requires all TV sets to receive both VHF and UHF channels, and the same law the FCC relied on when it required all new TV sets, VCRs and other devices with tuners to have digital reception capability.

I am dumbfounded to witness how the NTIA, which oversees the coupon program and certifies the converter boxes, has made such a huge mistake concerning the digital transition!  And if NTIA can’t figure it out, the FCC should understand that boxes that block analog signals violate the law – no two ways about it!

Tony Wilhelm, director of DTV coupon program consumer education for the NTIA, pointed out in a recent article that a customer who chooses the Sling TR40 would essentially have a free converter box.  But what NTIA doesn’t say is that these $39.99 boxes won’t be available until June, and the 1 million people who ordered their coupons on January 1st will be out of luck, because their coupons expire after 90 days!  

NTIA’s Acting Administrator Meredith Baker recently announced that 28 converter boxes have been certified as coupon-eligible.  But the government has not mandated that these devices be able to receive analog signals, nor has it advertised to the public that most of the boxes won’t let them watch analog stations.  They aren’t even requiring boxes that don’t work with analog stations be marked to warn consumers.  We are very concerned that viewers of LPTV and translators will mistakenly buy models that will cut them off from the stations they want to watch!

Time is NOT on our side! We must let everyone know the seriousness of the flawed DTV Transition put forth by our government and subsidized with our tax dollars!

To make things worse, CEA, NTIA, NCTA, NAB, and the FCC are all advertising that, “all analog television ceases on February 17, 2009.”  That’s just not true!  Four out of five TV transmitters in the U.S. will not cease analog broadcasting on that date.

The CBA is fighting for what is right, lawful and what will continue to keep us successful as LPTV, Class A and Translator operators. We are fighting for the rights of the American public to be able to see all federally licensed broadcast stations, before and after the full power transition to digital.  And the law is on our side.
There has been positive dialog between our association, the NTIA and FCC, but neither group has agreed that converters that block analog signals are illegal.  If no resolution comes about by the end of this month, the CBA intends to seek judicial relief.

In markets across the country, Class A, LPTV and translator stations provide important local programming, serve foreign language communities and are often the only source of broadcast television in rural areas.  These facts make it difficult for the CBA that represents them to accept the short-sightedness of our government, let alone ignoring the All Channel Receiver law.  

If the digital transition is going to succeed, we need a better thought out subsidy program and educational effort.

Amy Brown

1-800-215-7655 ph