Do you still harbor some notion that the FCC’s cold-eyed zombie-like insistence on keeping analog service alive everywhere for as long as possible makes sense?  Consider this.

On March 20, a TV station which has been providing “enhanced analog nightlight service” went to the Commission with a simple request: could it please be relieved of the final three weeks of its analog service commitment so that it could turn off that service as soon as possible?  (The station had previously committed to enhanced analog nightlight operation until April 17, but only so that it could qualify for the right to terminate conventional analog service on February 17.)  The station pointed out that there did not appear to be any significant public concern about continued analog service, since the station had received a total of 20 inquiries about the DTV transition from the public between March 1-17 (six of which came on March 2).  So it’s not like the viewing public would be seriously threatened.

But, the station noted, keeping the analog in operation would seriously threaten some people.

Specifically, three station staffers whose positions would have to be terminated if the station were required to keep its analog nightlight service going.  As the licensee explained to the Commission, the substantial cost of that operation was unforeseen and unbudgeted, since the station had been planning to turn off the analog as of February 17.  (You remember February 17 – that was the absolutely final-and-for-sure-don’t-even-think-about-changing-it analog termination date, a date you could take to the bank . . . until, that is, late January, when Congress, um, changed the date – cue Emily Litella – thereby putting both the FCC staff and the TV industry in a bind.) 

Now, suddenly, stations had to deal with substantial unexpected costs during a time of dramatic economic upheaval.  If you’re going to make the monthly analog nut, and advertising revenues are down,other costs will have to be cut.

So the Commission was given the choice: (a) three more weeks of “analog nightlight” service of apparently minimal (if any) utility, or (b) continued employment for three real live people.

There was doubtless not a dry eye in the Commission when they authored their touching and sensitive email response, which we reproduce in its entirety:

Based on the information provided and an FCC map study that shows a significant portion of [the station’s] analog service area that will receive no analog network service, [your] request to be relieved of enhanced nightlight obligations, IS DENIED.

That’s it.  That’s the list.  No attempted explanation of the overriding benefits of continued analog service, no acknowledgment of the seemingly sparse concerns about analog demonstrated by the public so far, no effort to justify the result at all.  And not even a suggestion that the enhanced analog nightlight requirement, applicable only to Big Four network affiliates, is both plainly inconsistent with the DTV Delay Act and of dubious constitutionality.

And not a hint of recognition that, by insisting on continued service, the Commission was putting three more people on the unemployment lines.

Referring (in an admittedly different context) to the collective hysteria that afflicted colonial Salem, Justice Louis Brandeis once remarked that “men feared witches and burnt women.”  Of course, no one is dying here, so the witch trials are by no means a perfectly apt analogy. But it’s still hard to miss the regrettable parallel: significant harm inflicted on innocent citizens by a government in the throes of an irrational fear of a purely imaginary evil.

The FCC and the Congress, all fearing some imagined DTV catastrophe (and, perhaps more importantly, the imagined political repercussions of such an imagined catastrophe), have pressed television operators into increasingly ridiculous measures supposedly designed to avert disaster.  (Does anyone seriously doubt that the incessant DTV “educational” announcements, pounded into TV viewers’ consciousness over and over and over for the past year, have lost any effectiveness they might once have had?  Does anyone seriously think that, by increasing the number of such announcements, their efficacy might be restored?)

Like the townspeople indulging the emperor’s imaginary new clothes, we can all indulge the Commission’s fixation on the supposed salutary effects of DTV education and nightlight service and the like.  In fact, we have to, since the Commission is driving the bus and, with no way to grab the steering wheel, the rest of us are along for the ride, hoping to get to our destination in one piece.

But when the FCC’s fixation crashes into reality, leaving real people jobless in the Real World, somebody really ought to say something.

There is some basis to hope that the Commission may snap itself out of its DTV trance if confronted with at least a glimpse of reality.  Recently, Acting Chairman Copps was quoted in a Bloomberg report as being open to revisiting newspaper-broadcast ownership restrictions because those restrictions don’t meet “the needs of the industry, the economy or the public.”  But wait.  Isn’t that the same Copps who, just 15 months ago, expressed outrage at even a modest and limited relaxation of those same rules?  According to Copps (circa December, 2007), that relaxation “would make George Orwell proud”.  The Commission was “shed[ding] crocodile tears for the financial plight of newspapers – yet the truth is that newspaper profits are about double the S&P 500 average.” It appears that, despite his derisive tone just months ago, he may have had an epiphany.

Such an epiphany is, of course, welcome, particularly when it bespeaks a governmental official mature, or wise, or simply flexible enough not to let himself get trapped by his own rhetoric. But why now?  Perhaps it was the recent, Real World failure of several major newspapers, coupled with reports of others teetering on the brink.  Confronted with actuality – as opposed to facile, self-serving rhetoric – could it be that Copps has recognized that his earlier posturing was misguided?  Think Ebenezer Scrooge, a character transformed when confronted by the real and plainly undesirable consequences of his conduct.

If it’s happening in the cross-ownership context, it could happen on the DTV side as well. Let’s hope that the Commission comes out of its DTV education trance before it does any greater harm – to companies and real individuals – than it already has.