What Will Digital Do to Low-Power TV?

The Community Broadcasters Association has filed suit in federal court, hoping to block the sale of digital TV converter boxes that do not have an "analog pass-through." The group says the converter boxes allow old analog TV sets to receive only digital signals.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, a writer who finds humor in life's darkest moments, but first in less than 10 months, television stations across the country will flip the switch from analog to digital.

Congress set aside $1.5 billion to get digital converter boxes into the hands of viewers who have analog TVs, which won't be able to receive shows over the air after February of 2009, but hundreds of low-power broadcasters say that those converter boxes could be a potentially fatal blow for their industry, and they filed a lawsuit that could derail the transition to digital TV. Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: Last December, the head of the Federal Communications Commission appeared in a public service announcement touting the end of analog TV as we know it.

(Soundbite of television public service announcement)

Mr. KEVIN MARTIN (Chairman, United States Federal Communications Commission) I'm Kevin Martin, Chairman of the FCC. In February, 2009, every TV station in America will broadcast only in digital.

ROSE: That's not quite true. Congress ordered full-power TV stations, including most major network affiliates, to go digital on February 17 of next year, but low-power stations will keep broadcasting their analog signals whether anyone can watch or not.

Mr. RON BRUNO (President, The Bruno Goodworth Network, Inc.) It's important to note that the 910 Class A stations in America, the 1,600 low-power stations and the 4,000 translator stations are not part of this transition. They will remain analog.

ROSE: That's Ron Bruno, testifying before Congress last fall. He's the president of the Community Broadcasters Association. Bruno remembers that hearing well because it was the first time he saw a digital converter box.

Mr. BRUNO: I'm in the middle of a hearing in the United States Congress, and I'm looking at a box that's going to kill our industry.

ROSE: The converter boxes are designed to help old TVs with analog tuners pick up the new digital signals over the airwaves. Congress set aside money for a coupon program to subsidize the cost of two converter boxes per household.

The problem for Bruno and other low-power broadcasters is that most of the boxes on the market only pick up the new digital signals.

Mr. BRUNO: Every time one of these converter boxes are sold that lock out analog, we lose a viewer. So very, very shortly, we are going to be down to zero viewers.

ROSE: Bruno says he went to the FCC and members of Congress to complain about the boxes last year before they went on sale, but Bruno says he was basically ignored. So in March, the Community Broadcasters Association went to court seeking to block the sale of converter boxes it now says are illegal under a 45-year-old law called the All-Channel Receiver Act.

Mr. BRUNO: We had to do something, so we're trying to shut down the converter-box program and correct it so that the boxes that get sold have an analog tuner and a digital tuner in them.

ROSE: The FCC should be familiar with that law; it's the same one the commission is using to fine Wal-Mart and other retailers for failing to label analog TVs correctly. The FCC would not comment on the Community Broadcasters' lawsuit; neither would the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the agency in charge of approving converter boxes for sale. But the retailers, who have already stocked millions of these boxes, say changing course now would be a disaster.

Mr. GARY SHAPIRO (President, Consumer Electronics Association): If they won their lawsuit, it would stop the digital TV transition.

ROSE: Gary Shapiro is president of the Consumer Electronics Association. He says low-power broadcasters reach just a tiny fraction of the overall U.S. TV audience.

Mr. SHAPIRO: We're talking about less than 1 percent of TV viewers. This is not the end of the republic.

ROSE: But it might be the end for many small businesses.

(Soundbite of television broadcast)

Mr. BRUNO: So this is our master control area. What happens here is, you know, the satellite dishes you saw outside, all that stuff comes in…

ROSE: Ron Bruno is also the president of the Bruno Goodworth Network, 11 low-power stations in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia that broadcast reruns and syndicated shows as well as local news and high-school sports.

Bruno says many low-power broadcasters can't afford $150,000 for a new digital transmitter, and they can't get a loan because no bank would take a risk on a station that's about to lose its audience.

Mr. BRUNO: The biggest losers in the country are going to be the Hispanic markets because almost all Hispanic television stations are low-powers, and then the other people who are going to get beat really bad are religious. A lot of religious broadcasters have defaulted to use low-power stations.

ROSE: Some converter boxes do receive both analog and digital signals, although so far only one of them appears to be available in stores. That's according to Joel Kelsey of Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports. He says the fact that nobody addressed this earlier is typical of the DTV transition.

Mr. JOEL KELSEY (Consumers Union): What's happening with Community Broadcasters is one problem that's emblematic of many of the smaller problems that the federal government has kind of either ignored or failed to deal with, really, in their express train to flipping the switch on February 17.

ROSE: That rush may have something to do with the enormous value of the airwaves the digital transition will free-up. The analog spectrum broadcasters are leaving behind was just auctioned off by the FCC and raised nearly $20 billion for the federal government. Ron Bruno says Congress could spend just a fraction of that windfall to help low-power broadcasters go digital.

Mr. BRUNO: To convert all the low-power industry, it's going to be less than $500 million. That would propel us right into digital so we could start building our transmitters right now, and we would drop this lawsuit.

ROSE: Some might call that extortion, but without help from Congress or the courts, Bruno says many low-power stations won't just be a few years late switching to digital. He says they'll never make the transition at all.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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