New DTV transition rules released.

It’s déjà vu all over again. As expected, the Commission has acted, once again on a Friday (and yes, again on a Friday the 13th), to revise its required procedures with regard to termination of analog operations and consumer education announcements. The new order may be found here.

The changes represent something of a good news/bad news situation, but the bad news outweighs the good. While some unnecessary and/or confusing requirements have been eliminated, the consumer education announcements have been bulked up to include a lot of information not previously required. . . and various non-broadcast chores have been increased . . . and the Commission has made it difficult for major network affiliates to say so long to analog.   The clear intent of the new requirements, which are especially heavy for major network affiliates, is to discourage stations from making an early transition. 

And even if some stations undertake all the new burdens, the Commission makes it clear that the Commission reserves the right either to postpone or simply deny permission for some stations to terminate analog operations early.

The most pressing new requirement is that every station that has not already made the transition to digital-only operation must file a notification – the Analog Service Termination Notice (ASTN) – with the Commission by next Tuesday, March 17 at 5:30 p.m. EDT. The ASTN must include the date and approximate time (by daypart – i.e., early morning, (12 M-6:00 a.m.) morning (6:01 a.m.-12 N), afternoon (12:01 p.m.-6:00 p.m.), evening (6:01 p.m.-11:59 p.m.)) on which the station anticipates making the transition. These notices will be binding, and absent major equipment failure or other unforeseen catastrophe, stations will be held to the date specified in their notices. Stations which fail to file a timely ASTN will be deemed to have elected to continue analog operation until June 12.

(One exception: If a station changes its mind and decides to keep its analog operation going until June 12 after all, it may do so, but will be required to notify the Commission no less than five days before its originally-specified turn-off date, and it must air notices to viewers – at least four times daily, once in primetime – of the change in plans, over the five days prior to and including the originally-specified date.)

The earliest date that any commercial station, and most noncommercial stations, may pull the analog plug is April 16, 2009. Noncommercial educational stations that can certify that continuing operation would create a significant financial hardship, however, may be able to turn off as early as March 27. The FCC’s theory here is that noncommercial stations often face greater budget issues. 

Any station looking to terminate analog service prior to June 12 will have to air at least four viewer notifications a day (at least one in primetime) for at least 30 days prior to the termination. (NCE stations shutting down before April 16 will still have to run a total of 120 such announcements, distributed evenly through the period leading up to the termination.) These notices, which are in addition to the DTV education announcements which have been required for the past year or so already, must contain:

  • the station’s call sign and community of license;
  • the station’s plan to end analog service prior to June 12;
  • the date of the planned termination;
  • what viewers can do to continue to receive the station, i.e., how and when the station’s digital signal can be received;
  • information about the availability of digital-to-analog converter boxes in the service area;
  • the street address, email address (if available), and phone number of the station where viewers can register comments or request information. That number – which will also be used to receive calls forwarded from the FCC’s Call Center – is expected to be staffed by knowledgeable people who can help consumers with local reception issues and other engineering issues. The Commission has indicated that the people staffing the local telephone help line may be provided by the station, a group of stations, or a third party such as the state broadcasters’ association.;
  • “service loss” information, if the station’s DTV signal will reach less than 98% of the population reached by its analog signal.

These notice requirements apply to all stations seeking to terminate analog operation prior to June 12. But there are additional gotchas for major network affiliates who fall in that category.

A major network affiliate must certify on its ASTN that either: (a) at least 90 percent of the people within its service area will continue to received full analog service from an affiliate of another major network through June 12; or (b) at least 90 percent of its viewers will receive “enhanced nightlight service,” or some combination of enhanced nightlight service and continued analog programming service, and that the station will comply with the other public interest requirements. The stations which will supply the on-going analog service must be specifically identified in the ASTN.

For enhanced nightlight service, stations must provide at a minimum DTV educational information and news and public affairs programming. For all stations, regardless of location or audience composition, the DTV transition information must be aired in both English and Spanish, and must have both captioning and an aural element so that both the vision and hearing-impaired may receive the information. In order to offset some of the cost, however, commercial announcements will be allowed.   The Commission indicated that a station may rely on another station in the market, but each individual broadcaster will nonetheless remain responsible for ensuring that the service is provided. The Commission has not indicated what would happen if the station upon which another station is relying suddenly has its transmitter break down.

So early termination now includes significantly increased notice requirements and substantial extra burdens for net affiliates. But wait, there’s more.

The Commission is requiring that early-terminating major network affiliates must also provide at least one “walk-in help center”. That center can be organized and operated jointly with other stations or local businesses or organizations, but each station will be independently responsible for making sure that the center meets the FCC’s specs. And those specs are detailed. Each walk-in center must include a range of very specific equipment and capabilities to assist the public in coping with the DTV transition. Oh yeah, the walk-in center must be open seven days a week, and there must be at least one broadcast station employee on-site at all times during operating hours. Each station must provide the Commission with the address, phone number and operating hours of its walk-in help center, along with the name and phone number of the station’s “point of contact” for DTV transition issues.

Stations not transitioning until June 12 are relieved of the additional requirements specified for early-exiting network affiliates. They still have additional burdens imposed, however, as the Commission has expanded the types of information now required to be conveyed in the DTV consumer education announcements and has added additional notices that must be aired. These new requirements will go into effect on April 1. They include the following:

  • All stations must provide viewers with information about antennas and signal reception. If the station is changing from the VHF to the UHF signal band, or vice versa, it must provide information about the possible need for a change of antenna.
  • All stations must remind viewers that they will periodically need to use the rescan function on their digital television sets and converter boxes to pick up stations in the area.
  • All stations must announce the location and operating hours of walk-in DTV help centers in the market area, the FCC Call Center telephone number and TTY number, and the number the station has designated for receiving consumer calls.
  • Stations that will experience a loss of two percent or greater of the population served within its Grade B service area, whether or not offset by population gains, must air service loss notices, which must describe the approximate geographic areas that will lose service. These notices are required in addition to the other consumer education notices.

Each of these new pieces of information must be included in a notice at least once a day, must air in primetime at least three times a week, and must be at least 15 seconds long.

The Commission also has changed the 100-Day Countdown Clock for those stations that chose Option 2. It will now be a 60-day clock, and it will be geared to each station’s own analog termination date. This requirement does not become effective until April 1. As of that date, all stations will be required to run a countdown to their own respective termination dates, starting on the latter of April 1 or the 60th day prior to termination.

Finally, in the area of additional notices, broadcasters that chose either Option 2 or Option 3 will need to air a new 30-minute informational video at least one day before they transition. This video must be up-to-date and also must reference local issues. This new mandate will impose significantly greater burdens, as it will not be possible for stations in various markets all to air the same program in its entirety.

One ray of sunshine, however, is that the Commission has eliminated the requirement that most stations that have already made the transition continue the consumer education announcements. Someone finally realized that the only people who could see these announcements were the ones who no longer needed help. The only exception is for stations that have not built out their full, authorized DTV facilities. These stations may not cease the announcements until their final facilities are built.

Lurking just below the surface of the Commission’s new and even more elaborate constraints on early transition is the fact that even the FCC acknowledges that some early terminations may be beyond the licensee’s, and the FCC’s, control. The Commission repeatedly alludes to the possibility that “equipment failure, natural disaster, or other unforeseeable emergency” may lead to pre-June 12 analog terminations notwithstanding any supposedly binding ASTNs or related obligations. That possibility introduces a range of unknowns and unknowables into the mix for the next several months.

Again, the Commission’s staff is to be applauded for their ability to deal with a truly daunting task expeditiously. This is not to say that the latest order is a model of persuasion. To the contrary, aspects of it – particularly its effort to justify new burdens over and above those imposed in the Third Period Review, in direct contravention of Congress’s explicit direction – are appallingly disingenuous. But, as previous posters have observed, the exigent circumstances here preclude dispassionate consideration of legalities. Whether or not the Commission has the authority to do what it’s doing, the time frames here are so short that, by the time anyone could get into court, June 12 will have come and gone.

Ideally, this most recent order will be the last of the zigs – or are they zags? – in the course of the DTV transition, as the regulatory bus lurches back and forth, pushing fitfully toward June 12. But you never know.