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Lawsuit: Switch to digital TV would bankrupt small stations

WASHINGTON — The low-power television industry is facing a "death sentence" because of a flaw in the government's plan to force broadcasters to shift to digital broadcasting and has asked a federal judge for a reprieve.

The Community Broadcasters Association, which represents owners of small television stations, wants the Federal Communications Commission to ban all digital set top converter boxes that are not equipped to receive an analog signal, a request that has the potential to derail the biggest broadcasting transition since color television.

As of Feb. 18, 2009, all full-power television stations in the U.S. are required to stop broadcasting an analog signal. Anyone who gets programming through an antenna and does not have a newer-model digital TV set will need to buy a box that converts the digital signal to analog. The government is providing two $40 coupons per household that can be used to buy these boxes.

The problem facing the 2,600 low-power television stations represented by the association is that they are not subject to the deadline. Most of the converter boxes now on sale will actually block the low-power analog signal from those stations, while the full-power digital signal will display normally.

The association, in a petition filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Wednesday, asked the FCC to "prevent the marketing and distribution" of the boxes.

The association cited a 1962 law called the All Channel Receiver Act which was adopted during the early years of UHF broadcasting. The law requires that devices that receive television signals be capable of picking up "all frequencies allocated by the commission to television broadcasting."

It is not certain how many viewers may be affected. The association characterizes its viewers as rural, underserved urban, elderly and non-English speaking.

In addition to low-power stations, about 4,300 translator stations, which boost signals from full-power stations and relay them to rural areas, also are exempt from the 2009 deadline.

Nothing in the law prevents low-power stations from converting to digital, but for most stations, the cost is prohibitive, according to the association.

Ronald Bruno, president of the association, said converter boxes currently for sale will decrease viewership for low-power stations.

"Every time a person gets a coupon, buys a converter box and plugs it in, we lose that viewer," he said.

The petition asks the court to order the FCC to act immediately to ban the boxes and says a delay would be disastrous.

"The dire consequences for such stations — effectively a death sentence — will be irreparable through any available administrative or judicial remedy," it reads.

The FCC had no comment on the court action.

The converter box program is overseen by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Agency spokesman Bart Forbes said the law ordering the transition says boxes can "only receive digital signals" and the NTIA specifications on box design are consistent with the law.

Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, accused the broadcast association of "trying an 11th-hour litigation strategy to freeze the entire nation in analog."

As of March 25, the NTIA reported it has received requests for 8.5 million coupons from 4.5 million households.

Six of the converter boxes that have been approved for sale by the NTIA allow for an analog "pass-through" feature. According to the NTIA, they are the Philco TB150HH9, the Philco TB100HH9, the ECHOSTAR TR-40, the Magnavox TB-100MG9, the Digital Stream DX8700 and the Digital Stream DSP7700T.

Such a feature would allow televisions to receive an analog signal, but Bruno says such boxes "do not create an acceptable solution for the over-the-air viewer." To watch analog channels, viewers would have to turn off the digital converter box and use a separate remote control.


On the Net:

FCC fact sheet on low-power stations: www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/DTVandLPTV.html

To apply for a coupon for a converter: https:www.dtv2009.gov