Certain to be a hot topic at this week's convention of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is a plan by federal regulators to shut off analog television transmission by 2009. The plan would return the analog spectrum to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) for auction to wireless companies.

The FCC's original mandate for terminating analog was December 31, 2006, or when 85% of the market could receive digital signals, whichever came first. The 2006 deadline has been pushed back several times due to delays in bringing digital transmitters online and in developing digital programming. The original 85% market penetration level was to have been calculated based on the number of consumers within the "footprints" of local transmitters, the 1950s model of broadcasting.

Recently FCC Chairman Michael Powell floated the idea of also figuring in the number of people receiving their signals from cable or satellite services, a much more realistic model given that approximately 85% of US viewers do so. The plan includes allowing broadcasters and cable providers to downconvert digital signals to analog to accommodate viewers with older receivers, a proposal that has outraged proponents of DTV, including the NAB.

FCC regulators believe that a no-compromise deadline for the changeover will hasten broadcasters' digital efforts, but the broadcasters themselves appear intent on hanging onto analog until the last rabbit-ear antenna disappears. Broadcasters would "rather eat their children than give up their spectrum," commented FCC mass media bureau chief Ken Ferree.

NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said his organization "remains concerned that the Ferree initiative is simply a spectrum-reclamation plan that would strand both consumers and broadcasters who have collectively spent billions embracing the best television technology on the planet." Wharton said the allowance for down-conversion "makes a mockery of 15 years of government-industry partnership in advancing the digital transition. How would allowing a cable operator to degrade a local broadcaster's high-quality HDTV signal into analog further the DTV transition?"

Unresolved is the fate of the 15% of US viewers who get their TV signals over the air. Those viewers would need set-top converter boxes (STBs) to continue using their analog sets. One suggestion is that proceeds from the analog auction be used to subsidize supplying such viewers with STBs.

NAB spokesmen said the FCC's most recent plans are "an unworkable series of shortcuts", according to an April 16 report in the Hollywood Reporter and likely would be rejected at the trade group's convention. A letter protesting the plan, and signed by executives of major broadcasting companies, has already been received by the FCC.