Not So Fast, Dayton

It’s official – the DTV Delay Bill is law, after being signed Wednesday afternoon by President Obama.

Broadcasting & Cable has more, along with a presidential signing statement:

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“During these challenging economic times, the needs of American consumers are a top priority of my administration. This law, which was crafted in a bipartisan way and passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate, ensures that our citizens will have more time to prepare for the conversion.”

“Millions of Americans, including those in our most vulnerable communities, would have been left in the dark if the conversion had gone on as planned, and this solution is an important step forward as we work to get the nation ready for digital TV. My administration will continue to work with leaders in Congress, broadcasters, consumer groups and the telecommunications industry to improve the information and assistance available to our citizens in advance of June 12.”

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And following that signing, the Federal Communications Commission has released a list of 123 stations (PDF file) that will have to meet extra guidelines to sign off analog signals on February 17th – that’s this coming Tuesday for those without a calendar nearby – instead of the now-official new deadline of June 12th.

The remaining stations of the total of 491 – not tabbed in yesterday’s FCC update – will be allowed to silence analog signals on Tuesday without further commission intervention. Locally, that list includes Multicultural Broadcasting infomercial outlet WOAC/67 Canton.

But as predicted in this report and elsewhere, two Ohio markets have received that extra “love” and attention from the FCC – Dayton, and Wheeling/Steubenville. Also, the only station in a single-station market serving Marietta and other Southeast Ohio viewers, Gray NBC affiliate WTAP/15 Parkersburg WV, is on the list.

All four major network affiliates in Dayton filed to go digital-only early, as did all the market’s other stations save for Trinity Broadcasting’s WKOI/43 Richmond IN. In Wheeling/Steubenville, both major network affiliates – WTRF/7 Wheeling WV (CBS) and WTOV/9 Steubenville (NBC) – want to shut off analog at the original date. (Did we mention that the date is TUESDAY, as in under a week from this writing?)

Here’s the commission’s particular concern, quoted in the public notice setting the new guidelines (PDF file):

We considered the presence of major networks and their affiliates critical to ensuring that viewers have access to local news and public affairs available over the air because the major network affiliates are the primary source of local broadcast news and public affairs programming. Therefore, even if independent or noncommercial stations remain on the air in these markets, we still considered these areas at risk.

As such, the Dayton list of “hold on a minute, not yet” stations includes WDTN/2 (NBC), WHIO/7 (CBS), WKEF/22 (ABC), and WRGT/45 (Fox), but does not include CW affiliate WBDT/26 (or PBS outlet WPTD/16).

Wheeling/Steubenville doesn’t have any other full-power network affiliates (or stations, period), though it should be noted that over-air network service for ABC and Fox is provided in that market by – as any long-time reader should know – digital subchannels on CBS affiliate WTRF/7. WTAP does the same for Fox and MyNetwork TV in Parkersburg/Marietta.

So, what about the Dayton “Big Four” affiliates, and the two Ohio Valley stations?

The FCC has released a long list of guidelines that the stations must file to uphold, and the stations affected have to make that decision by the close of business on Friday:

Ensure that at least one station that is currently providing analog service to an area within the DMA that will no longer receive analog service after February 17, 2009 will continue broadcasting an analog signal providing, at a minimum, DTV transition and emergency information, as well as local news and public affairs programming (“enhanced nightlight” service) for at least 60 days following February 17, 2009. The local news, public affairs, or other programming may include commercial advertising.

That shouldn’t be a problem in Dayton – for one, Sinclair owns both the ABC and Fox affiliates, and could presumably split them – with one station signing off analog, and one providing the so-called “enhanced nightlight” service. (Sinclair has already decided to keep Columbus ABC affiliate WSYX/6 in analog through the new June 12th deadline.)

It might be trickier in Wheeling/Steubenville, where the two stations compete.

The decision in Parkersburg/Marietta is solely up to WTAP, of course.

In addition to that requirement, stations much ensure that either they, or another local station or stations in some cases, adhere to a list of increased educational requirements, including telephone call-in help, establishing “walk-in” centers to provide hands-on help to viewers, and other such measures.

If a station can’t comply with those guidelines, the commission provides an alternate route:

Stations listed in the Appendix that do not certify that they will undertake the actions described above may make an alternative showing to the Commission that extraordinary, exigent circumstances, such as the unavoidable loss of their analog site or extreme economic hardship, require that they terminate their analog service on February 17th.

Please note the words in the FCC public notice: “extreme economic hardship”.

We’re not experts when it comes to figuring out the FCC, but to us, that says stations won’t be able to simply state that they’re losing money. We assume they’d have to prove that keeping the analog transmitter on would basically put them out of business.

The FCC itself signals that this won’t be an easy task:

We do not anticipate that many stations will be able to meet the high burden applicable to this showing.

…though the notice says the commission will “endeavor” to make the determination by Tuesday.

So, it’ll likely be the first “extra education, and someone has to keep on an ‘enhanced analog nightlight’ signal” option for the affected stations. What may actually make that happen is the ability to run news – and more importantly, sell commercials – on the “enhanced nightlight” service.

Our prediction, at this point, is that they’ll figure it out in Dayton, at least.

But, it’s still a mess. We wonder how much all that extra effort will cost stations, if they’ll be able to spread the costs, and if some stations on the 123 station list might just decide to keep on the analog transmitter anyway.

Government is not known for working fast, but the FCC has been throwing these rules at stations like a pitcher’s fastball, and once again, local stations will have to jump through hoops and make important decisions in less than two days…frankly, all because Congress jumped into this in the first place, and jumped in late.

We hope someone with scholarly ties will be studying all this.

If Dayton’s network affiliates are able to go on the originally scheduled date, which has been pounded into viewers’ heads for over a full year, will the switch still be as smooth – or bumpy – as it will be for the stations transitioning on June 12th?

It’s our long-held belief that whatever problems pop up after the transition, will pop up February 18th or June 13th, and that efforts should be focused on fixing those problems (signal improvements, etc.)…but, we’re just the Mighty Blog, and we don’t make FCC policy…

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