By Erin Somers

On June 11, 2009, the U.S. became among the first 10 countries to complete the transition to digital broadcasting television (DTV). A handful of European countries beat it to the punch by three years, with Luxembourg and the Netherlands switching over as early as 2006, and Finland, Andorra, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland following suit in 2007. Unsurprisingly, the change in the U.S. was a magnet for controversy, with both broadcasters and the U.S. authority, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), dragging their heels over deadlines and consumers in an uproar over the prospect of their terrestrial channels going black. Congress got in on the game by delaying the whole process when its digital conversion voucher program (that subsidized the digital-to-analog decoders) ran out of money, pushing back the target date from the original February 17 until mid-June.

The U.S. government had allocated $1.34 billion to distribute coupons for converter boxes to U.S. citizens. At $40 a voucher, this sum seemed adequate to cover the expenses of those who weren’t quite ready to trade in their old analog TVs. However, with analog TVs in the U.S. numbering roughly 70 million, the program came up short.
Complications notwithstanding, the switch has been in full effect for about seven months, but the turbulence is far from over. Once again, U.S. broadcasters and the FCC are locking horns. This time, it’s over unused extra channels in the digital spectrum.
Since the June transition, new intermediate channels have been made available for broadcast. Because of the nature of the digital spectrum, broadcasters are able to “multi-cast,” or broadcast different content from a few channels at once. These channels are known in the industry as “dot channels” for their numerical designations (7.2, 7.3, etc.), and have created airtime where once there was none. With each core channel comes a total four dot channels for standard television (hi-definition takes most of the spectrum), and broadcasters, faced with an unprecedented amount of airtime, have floundered for content to fill them (see related editorial in the October 2009 issue of VideoAge).

For high-powered stations, meaning stations with a powerful signal that reaches a larger coverage area, the switch to a multi-cast format was mandatory. But for low-powered stations, the switch was optional, and came at the broadcaster’s own expense.

Lately, the FCC has been claiming that broadcasters — high-powered and low-powered alike — are making poor (or no) use of the dot channels, and has begun threatening to take them back all together. The FCC argues that multi-casting was supposed to be one of the greatest advantages of DTV, yet it is largely neglected by broadcasters. The issue is complicated by the financial interests of the FCC and the newness of the situation in general.

Tune in to one of the dot channels today, and one might find foreign language programming, a community oriented public access type show or, as is perhaps most prevalent, a rerun of an old movie or series. Over-the-air channels still reach about 12 million viewers in the U.S., which is why, contends the FCC, they should not be wasted on old episodes of Mister Ed and vintage movies.

FCC commissioner Michael Copps, who chaired the DTV transition, has been vocal about the channels being squandered on filler material. “If the spectrum is going to be used just for home shopping and Doppler radar,” he said in a recent interview, “It’s falling short of the purpose that it could be serving.” Making good use of multi-cast has been Copps’ goal since the early 2000s, when the DTV transition was still the pie in the sky. “I have always thought that a properly fashioned [multi-cast regime] would redound very much to the interest of localism and diversity and competition.” He said. With DTV up and running, Copps maintains his dedication to making sure that, as he put it, “the enhanced digital capacity broadcasters have available to them [goes to] good and solid public interest use.”

Editors’ note: VideoAge will return to the topic of dot channels in one of its upcoming NATPE Dailies, in which broadcasters get a chance to respond to the FCC’s criticisms.

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