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Digital delay could strap local TV stations

For WEDU-Ch. 3 general manager Dick Lobo, it's as if Congress is about to yank the rug from under his entire station.

Since legislators first required TV stations across the country to switch exclusively to digital frequencies on Feb. 17, the Tampa PBS station has spent more than $14 million gearing up for the change — buying a new transmitter, testing to see how viewers react to a loss of analog signal and distributing mountains of literature emphasizing the date of the switchover.

Now that Congress, at the request of the Obama administration, is considering delaying the switch four months to June 12, Lobo is looking at an unexpected $40,000 expense in the most challenging fiscal year he's ever seen.

And he might not go along with it.

"I'm weighing seriously stopping the analog signal on the original date, Feb. 17, if the law allows," said Lobo, who already has laid off four workers at WEDU, cut the remaining staff's pay by 5 percent and slashed the public television station's budget by $500,000 to meet the challenging economic times.

To legislators in Washington, it must have sounded like a simple solution. With a recent survey showing 6.5 million households still unprepared for TV stations to stop broadcasting analog signals on Feb. 17, President Obama suggested a timeout — delaying the switch to June 12 in legislation approved Monday by the U.S. Senate. The U.S. House had not yet voted on its version of the bill late Tuesday.

The problem: Broadcasters estimate it could cost stations anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000 per month — mostly in extra electric bills — to continue broadcasting analog and digital signals. That totals hundreds of thousands in unexpected charges at a time when many media companies already are laying off staff and cutting back.

And the new date of June 12 has extra significance in Florida, East Coast and Gulf Coast states: It's less than two weeks after the start of hurricane season.

"If you want to talk about chaos for the American people, imagine if there's a Cat One storm headed toward us when the digital switch happens," said C. Patrick Roberts, president of the Florida Association of Broadcasters. "I'd welcome anyone in Congress to join me for that trip."

Roberts states the problem as a classic governmental train wreck. Federal officials say they want to delay the switch because the program distributing $40 coupons to citizens covering the cost for a digital-to-analog converter box has run out of funding.

But since the coupons have a 60 percent cash-in rate, there are likely thousands more coupons that could go out without topping the $1.34 billion allotted to cover them. Complicating matters further, the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunication and Information Administration is handling the coupon program, even though the Federal Communications Commission is handling the DTV switch with stations and consumers.

A quick survey of commercial broadcasters in the Tampa Bay area shows most stations expect to go along with whatever delay Congress enacts, though they may not be happy about it.

At CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10, general manager Ken Tonning suggested Tampa Bay area stations might collectively agree on an earlier date to drop analog. "Wilmington did it last year," said Tonning, noting that the North Carolina town ended analog signals in September as an early, largely successful, experiment. "If the rest of the market decides they want to go early, we would consider it."

Digital delay could strap local TV stations 01/27/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 6:38pm]

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