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FCC to TV stations ready to make the digital switch: Not so fast

Some 500 television stations across the country have alerted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that they plan to switch from analog to digital signals next week, four months shy of the official new deadline. But the FCC has nixed the requests of 123 broadcasters pending proof that viewers won't be left in the dark – specifically that they will still be able to tune into local news and public affairs programming and to receive info in the case of an emergency.

The FCC in a statement said it gave thumbs down to the 123 stations, insisting that "early termination poses a significant risk of substantial public harm" in their viewing areas. The reason: they're all in markets in which all of the network affiliates are asking to switchover early, which would leave viewers without digital TVs, digital-TV converter boxes or cable or satellite service without television service. "Even if independent or non-commercial stations remain on the air in these markets," the FCC said, "we still considered these areas at risk," because they don't have the coverage of the major networks.

If the flagged stations want to make the switch on Tuesday – the original switchover date –  they have until the end of today to certify to the FCC that at least one network affiliate in their market has agreed to continue to broadcast in analog until June 12.

Most broadcasters now transmit programming in both digital and analog to accommodate customers with older television sets who do not have cable service or direct satellite. But they have been eager to switch to all-digital all-the-time to cut costs. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) president Paula Kerger said last month (when Congress was debating extending the deadline) that delaying the switch four months would cost public television $22 million because many of stations would be forced to extend leases on broadcasting towers. President Obama this week signed legislation officially pushing the deadline to June 12  to give the feds time to issue $40 vouchers to some 2.6 million people to subsidize the purchase of digital converter boxes (which cost from $50 to $70).

Image ©iStockphoto.com/Jason Lugo

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