U.S. regulators will be scrutinizing bids by nearly 40 percent of the nation's hundreds of TV stations that want to broadcast completely in digital next week, the acting chief communications regulator said Wednesday.
Regulators were caught off guard by the steep number of stations that want to transition early, even after lawmakers delayed a mandatory nationwide switch to digital television by four months.
In markets that are vulnerable and left with few to no local broadcasting options, the requests may be denied, acting Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Copps told reporters Wednesday.
"We are six days from the most demanding consumer technology transition in the history of broadcasting," Copps said.
The U.S. House of Representatives last week completed action on legislation to delay the mandatory change by four months — to June 12 from Feb. 17. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill into law shortly.
The switch is intended to free up spectrum for public safety and provide better television viewing.
About 681 of the nearly 1,800 television broadcast stations will have already stopped broadcasting in older, analog signals, or will by next week, the FCC said Tuesday.
In fewer than 20 markets, viewers might be without any local options, according to the FCC.
The delay bill gave television stations, which say they've spent millions of dollars preparing and educating viewers for the switch-over, the option to transition to all digital on the original date, next Tuesday.
"People need to know that we are under the gun to provide flexibility," to broadcasters, Copps said.
Backers of the delay feared that 20 million mostly poor, elderly or rural households were not prepared because of a shortage of government coupons meant to defray the cost of converter boxes.
Major U.S. television networks, including CBS, NBC and ABC vowed last week to continue to transmit TV signals in analog.
But the networks own only about 100 of the 1,800 or so broadcast television stations in the United States, according to an industry group.
The FCC had given broadcasters a deadline of Feb. 9 to notify it of any intentions to meet the original transition date, with the regulatory agency reserving the right to review their decisions.