By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 2009
The Federal Communications Commission has told the owners of 123 TV stations that had planned to go ahead with the switch to digital broadcasts next week that they cannot do so unless they can show that consumers in their viewing areas will not be left in the dark.
On Monday, nearly 500 TV stations told the FCC they intended to make the switch to digital broadcasts on Feb. 17, the deadline that had been mandated by the government. Congress postponed the deadline last week to June 12, citing concerns that many people were unprepared for the move to digital. Broadcasters who spent years preparing for next week's deadline were given the option of moving ahead, but the FCC said it reserved the right to prevent stations from switching if it posed a public safety threat to particular markets.
Wednesday night, the FCC said that it would not allow 123 stations to switch next week, saying it was worried that in some markets all the major commercial stations or network affiliates were planning on turning off analog signals. Consumers who aren't yet prepared or are still waiting for coupons to purchase converter boxes needed to receive digital signals on analog televisions would lose access to important public safety information and local news alerts. Washington area stations have said they intend to keep analog signals on the air until June.
If stations still want to turn off analog signals, they have to take several actions to reassure the FCC. For instance, they have to ensure at least one analog signal is still on the air in their market. They have to maintain some sort of analog signal for 30 days after they switch in order to air information about the transition and emergency alerts. And they have to step up their public education efforts to make sure viewers are aware that the switch will indeed happen on Tuesday.
Stations were to certify to the FCC that they intend to take these steps by the close of business today in order to go through with their Feb. 17 plans. Stations can also appeal the FCC's decision if they can show that keeping their analog signal on past Tuesday will cause severe economic hardship.
The FCC says it will take "appropriate action" against stations that certify they will meet conditions, then fail to do so and still go off the air.