Some Seattle stations may end analog broadcasting on Feb 17

by Seattle Post-Intelligencer

RTM note: watch for an updated list of stations in the Seattle/Tacoma market and their plans for the DTV switch. We will also link to other regional and national lists of information as they become available.

Television viewers who use antennas and were expecting a few more months to prepare for digital TV may not have much time left before their sets go dark: Many stations still plan to drop analog broadcasts in less than two weeks. When Congress postponed the mandatory transition to digital TV until June, it also gave stations the option to stick to the originally scheduled date of Feb. 17.

That means the shutdown of analog signals, which broadcasters had hoped would happen at nearly the same time nationwide, could now unfold in a confusing patchwork of different schedules. In Seattle, major broadcasters have broken ranks on the issue, with three stations postponing the transition to digital-only over-the-air broadcasting. Two other major stations are still discussing whether to postpone.

Many Seattle-area broadcasters had jointly decided to make the transition Feb. 17, but Congress's allowing the delay threw that plan into turmoil, said Maria Lamarca Anderson, community relations manager for KIRO/7, the local CBS affiliate.

KING/5, the NBC affiliate, and its independent sister stations KONG/6 and 16, as well as KOMO/4, the ABC affiliate, said they will convert to digital-only broadcasting June 12.

Still undecided are Fox affiliate KCPQ/13 and KIRO.

"We have to minimize confusion to viewers, and it looked to me like postponing was in their best interest," said Jim Clayton, KOMO's vice president and general manager.

But it wasn't an easy decision. Stations said postponing the transition is costly, because most are broadcasting in both analog and digital formats until the changeover. That requires running two transmitters rather than just one.

"They use a lot of power," said Pat Costello, station manager for KING and KONG.

Another cost is running public-service ads to keep viewers apprised of the imminent change.

"That takes inventory that could be available for sale," said KOMO's Clayton.

KCPQ Vice President and General Manager Pam Pearson said the station had planned on a Feb. 17 transition, but the vote in the U.S. House on Wednesday to delay left it confused.

"I've got 10 different e-mails coming from all these sources and media attorneys whose job it is to break it down for me -- and even they're not completely clear on what it means," she said.

She added, "We certainly want to do what's in the public interest, but we also don't exactly have a clear direction."

KIRO said it would likely make its decision within a week.

Lawmakers wanted to address concerns that many households that receive TV signals through an antenna are not prepared for the switch. They were also mindful that a government fund has run out of money to subsidize digital converter boxes for older TVs.

Dozens of stations around the country now say they are going to take advantage of the option to drop analog broadcasts this month. Many others are on the fence. The total number is likely to be in the hundreds, a substantial chunk and maybe even a majority of the country's 1,796 full-power TV stations.

The House voted Wednesday to delay the mandatory shutdown until June 12. The Senate passed the measure unanimously last week, and the bill now heads to President Barack Obama for his signature.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission ordered stations that still plan to turn off analog signals Feb. 17 to notify the FCC by Monday.

Acting Chairman Michael Copps said the commission could prohibit stations from switching if doing so is not in the public interest. For instance, if all stations in a market want to turn off early, that would draw FCC scrutiny, he said at a commission meeting.

Copps said CBS, Fox, ABC and NBC and Telemundo had committed to keeping the stations they own broadcasting analog until June 12. (CBS also owns KSTW/11 in Seattle.) Together, they own 85 full-power stations.

Gannett Co. and Hearst-Argyle Television Inc. also pledged to maintain the vast majority of their stations on analog, Copps said. They operate 52 stations.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey