Archive for February 1, 2009

DTV converter boxes: LPTV group cries foul

DTV converter boxes may be in violation of FCC rules, low-power television (LPTV) broadcasters have charged in a complaint filed with the regulatory agency.

Digital-to-analog converter boxes are designed to smooth the transition to digital TV broadcasts in 2009. These devices, which allow over-the-air DTV signals to be viewed on old-technology televisions, violate the All-Channel Receiver Act (ACRA), an LPTV trade group argues. ACRA requires that receivers be “capable of adequately receiving all frequencies allocated by the FCC to television broadcasting,” according to the Community Broadcasters Association (CBA).

Even after the February 17, 2009, cutover to digital TV by the nation’s full-power stations, which dominate television ratings, the generally smaller Class A and LPTV stations will continue analog broadcasts. LPTV channels, because they typically lack cable carriage rights, are much more dependent on antenna viewers than the big stations. If converter boxes do not pass through analog signals to viewers’ TV sets, the CBA fears the loss of low-power audiences when government-subsidized DTV converters go on sale in 2008.

“Converter boxes that block our analog LPTV signals will confuse viewers and significantly decrease LPTV viewership,” says Ronald Bruno, newly elected CBA president. “Every time a person gets a coupon, buys a converter box and plugs it in we lose that viewer. Without an analog receiver in the converter box, our industry is facing a dire situation.”

The FCC has yet to set a deadline for Class A and low-power stations to switch to digital broadcasts.

Low-power TV plans for DTV transition
LPTV an afterthought in the DTV transition

From our FAQ section:
Are any TV stations exempt from the 2009 cutoff date?

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How many Americans watch TV over the air?

If the switch to digital TV in 2009 matters to anyone, it’s those folks who depend on an antenna (rather than a pay-TV service) for their viewing pleasure—especially the ones who still own traditional analog-only TV sets.

About 14 percent of U.S. households watch TV over the air exclusively. That’s 15.5 million households—according to the latest FCC report, anyway.

No one knows for sure, you see. Competing estimates:

• About 13.5 million antenna-TV households, says a Consumer Electronics Association survey.

• “Anywhere from 40 to 80 million households,” including TV sets in cable- or satellite-equipped homes that are not connected to the pay-TV service, according to figures cited by a Best Buy spokesman.

Digital TV facts for over-the-air viewers

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Martin’s multicast plan: Oh, the enthusiasm

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s plan to give cable subscribers additional channels from local broadcasters fell off the commission’s agenda this week. But it may pop up again at the FCC’s December 18 public meeting, according to an AP report.

Martin promoted the idea that minority- and women-owned businesses (among others) would be able to lease DTV multicast channels from station owners. But a dozen Congressional Democrats, in a letter to the chairman, expressed skepticism:

“You have presented no evidence to support your assertion that multicast must-carry would promote program diversity and increase programming choices.”

Republican Martin would likely need support from his Democratic colleagues to enact multicast must-carry. But Democrat Michael Copps, who acknowledges ownership diversity as an urgent issue, suggested this week that the chairman was trying to ram the measure through.

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Multicast must-carry plan on FCC’s agenda

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s latest plan to force cable carriage of broadcasters’ multicast channels appears to be advancing. At its November 27 public meeting, the commission will address “initiatives designed to increase participation in the broadcasting industry by new entrants and small businesses, including minority- and women-owned businesses.”

Under a plan circulated by Martin, station owners would lease out some of their excess digital TV channel capacity to new participants, and cable companies would be required to add the channels to their systems. (With the move to DTV, each local station is capable of broadcasting separate programming over five or six channels simultaneously.)

John Eggerton of Broadcasting & Cable writes:

Minority advocates and Hill and FCC Democrats have been underwhelmed by the proposal, with some picking up on the phrase popularized by FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein that it is akin to spectrum “sharecropping.” But Martin likely has two other Republican votes for the plan.

Can Martin’s scheme deliver on its implied promise of more diverse programming? That will depend, in large measure, on which particular entities sign leases to rent part of the public airwaves from broadcasters. What troubles me is the wording of the FCC’s agenda—which appears to suggest that “new entrants” needn’t necessarily be small or minority- or woman-owned businesses at all.

For the plan to be effective, the commission must create conditions that encourage the granting of leases to diverse, locally based ownership groups that will serve the public interest.

Are HDTV and multicasting competing technologies?

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DTV transition: New hitch for some cable viewers?

For customers of small cable companies, the road to digital TV could get bumpier if seven senators can persuade their colleagues to overrule an FCC decision.

Federal regulators simplified the DTV transition for consumers in September, announcing that cable systems will be required to carry local stations in both analog and digital form after traditional analog broadcasts cease on February 17, 2009. The rule has an exception: Operators of small cable systems will be granted waivers—but only if they can prove their case to the FCC.

Now five Republicans and two Democrats are proposing “a blanket exemption for systems with less than 552 MHz of capacity or with 5,000 or fewer subscribers,” according to Multichannel News. This could complicate matters, albeit slightly.

Let me again emphasize that in the switch to digital broadcasts, most cable subscribers have little to fear: they will continue to receive local channels, as usual, via cable. But if small-town cable companies are exempted from the FCC requirement, their customers may suddenly require digital cable service, along with a digital cable box, to continue receiving all local stations on a standard analog TV, the kind most of us grew up with.

The FCC is indeed, as the senators contend, putting some low-budget, low-bandwidth cable systems in a bind. Until the commission releases the text of its actual order, though, it is difficult to say just how steep a hurdle the affected cable operators face in getting a waiver.

While the FCC’s “dual carriage” plan is a boon to broadcasters, some viewers won’t be happy with the results. Devoting two channel slots to each local station will likely have the effect of squeezing out some cable networks, especially on the smallest systems.

Remember, too, that the local stations the FCC is protecting—those that elect “must-carry” status—tend to be weaker ones anyway. (If a station is popular enough with viewers, it can usually negotiate a carriage agreement with the cable company, assuring its continued access to subscribers’ television screens under “retransmission consent” rules.)

In the worst case, the unfortunate customers of Joe and Mabel’s Bait and Cable of Bad Dog, WY, would be forced to give up Comedy Central to make room for channel 46, with its endless lineup of home-shopping shows and She’s the Sheriff reruns.

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