Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin has a plan he says will help owners of thousands of small television stations survive the transition to digital broadcasting.
In 2009, all full-power television stations are required to broadcast a digital-only signal. But the nation's approximately 2,900 low-power stations and 4,400 signal-relay stations known as "translators" are not required to make the transition.
This creates an unusual problem.
The government is spending $1.5 billion to provide people with older-model televisions that use rabbit ears or other over-the-air antennas with special digital-to-analog converter boxes.
That solution helps full-power stations, but creates confusion for viewers of low-power stations. People who buy the wrong box might actually end up blocking their favorite local channel without knowing it.
Low-power stations provide service to rural areas and to specific communities in urban areas that are not targeted by big broadcasters. Such stations are much cheaper to build, and unlike full-power stations, broadcast almost exclusively to viewers who use antennas to pick up programming.
Translator stations rebroadcast the programming of full-power stations. They serve areas that are too far away from a full-power transmitter, or are cut off from a signal due to mountainous terrain.
"The low-power television stations I think obviously provide an important service to their local communities," Martin told reporters Friday. "We don't want to see them adversely impacted."
There are about 560 "Class A" stations that have certain interference protection rights not available to regular low-power stations.
Martin said at the next commission meeting, scheduled for Feb. 26, he will propose an order that would at least partially address the problem.
First, it "explicitly encourages" the consumer electronics industry to configure their boxes to convert digital signals, but allow analog signals to "pass through" without interruption.
Martin would also set a deadline of 2012 for low-power stations to convert to digital broadcasting.
To encourage the transition, he would allow them to apply for a second signal so they can continue to broadcast in analog format while they work on their digital station.
The order would also give special consideration to Class A stations to apply for full-power status when they convert to digital. Full-power stations get more respect from banks, making it easier for them to obtain financing to buy equipment needed to go digital.
Congress appropriated $65 million to reimburse low-power stations for equipment purchased to make the conversion, but the money will not be available until late 2010. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, proposed legislation last week that would move up the payouts to 2009.
Martin previewed his proposal as well as several other items that will appear on the agenda of the next meeting in an unusual press briefing that appeared to be a response to congressional criticism.
Last October, the Government Accountability Office released a report that said the agency tips off lobbyists in advance about what items are coming up for a vote at commission meetings, usually before the public is notified. The practice undermines the "fairness and transparency of the process" and constitutes a "violation of FCC's rules," the GAO said.
The chairman usually circulates an item for vote three weeks before a meeting. One week before the meeting, the agenda is published, and lobbying is banned. That allows a window of opportunity for lobbyists who "time their lobbying efforts to maximize their impact," GAO said.
With regular briefings to reporters, Martin appears to have come up with a way to blunt that criticism.