New lease on life for analog TV – but only a short-term 30-day lease, with plenty of strings attached

It looks like over-the-air analog TV will live on beyond February 17, 2009, thanks to Congress – but at most it will live on only for 30 days, and only subject to severe content limitations.

One of the biggest fears associated with the DTV Transition is that, when folks wake up on February 18, 2009, to find the catastrophic [fill in any disaster scenario of your choice here – blizzard, earthquake, wildfire, tsunami, train wreck, etc., etc.] conditions that arose while they were sleeping, they will turn on their over-the-air analog TVs looking for news and get, instead, nothing but static. Congress and the Commission are concerned that any viewers still reliant on over-the-air analog service – i.e., viewers who will be unable to get weather or emergency information post-DTV Transition – will spill their coffee, shriek with horror and then, in the ultimate act of retribution, conclude that Congress is to blame for the problem and vote the bastards out at the next opportunity. (While FCC Commissioners technically can’t get voted out, they can certainly experience what forensic experts refer to as “blowback”.)

In a preemptive effort to head off any such PR disaster, the Commission imposed extensive DTV Education requirements. But misgivings still exist (possibly exacerbated by the results of the Wilmington, NC DTV test last summer). And so, on December 11, Congress chimed in by passing the Short-term Analog Flash and Emergency Readiness (“SAFER”) Act.

The legislation (which has been sent to the President for signature – and no sane person anticipates a veto here) permits analog stations, where technically feasible, to continue to operate for 30 days after the transition date to provide public safety and digital transition information. The FCC is required to establish a plan by January 15, 2009, under which analog TV stations will be allowed to stay on the air, but only for the purpose of providing:

  1. Emergency information that is broadcast (or required to be broadcast) on the station’s digital signal.
  2. Information – in English and Spanish, and accessible to persons with disabilities – about the digital transition and what steps to take to continue receiving TV service (including emergency information). This information will include a phone number and Internet address by which help with the transition may be obtained in both English and Spanish.
  3. Consumer education about the digital transition and/or public health and safety or emergencies.

The SAFER Act requires the Commission to make sure that any post-Transition analog operations will not cause harmful interference to the reception of digital television signals. Also, the Act specifically exempts this limited post-Transition analog operation from any cable or satellite carriage rights. And providing further protection to MVPDs, the Act requires the FCC to take into consideration whether such operation would preclude or inhibit the delivery of the digital signals to cable or satellite head-ends. Finally, the legislation prohibits analog operation on Channels 52-69 and, where there is an authorized or pending request for public safety use, on Channels 14-20.

The chief of the NTIA has stated her support of the legislation, and it is likely that President Bush will sign it immediately. Of course, the next step will be for the FCC to throw together the rules by the Congressionally-mandated January 15, 2009 deadline. We will keep you updated as to the developments on the implementation.