More than 30 years ago - in my first job after college - I worked in the Capitol Hill press office of Robert Byrd, now one of the elder statesmen of the U.S. Senate. Besides teaching me more than I ever wanted to know about English grammar, the gentleman from West Virginia gave me a "Byrd's eye" view into the strange machinations of making public policy.
Just as most of us would rather not know how our sausage is made, the methods of crafting laws is just as messy. Perhaps more so since the sausage is simply the sum of its ingredients, while the actions of Congress are often bizarre sleight-of-hand concoctions designed on the surface to appeal to everyone, while actually benefiting the very few (special interests with the largest bankrolls).
Most of us (myself included) leave jobs on the Hill acidly cynical about politics. Others, relishing the game, become lobbyists. Those slick, pseudo sincere super-salesmen that choose to lobby members of Congress know that priority number one with each and every legislator is job protection. It is the very, very rare member of Congress that will embrace an issue that's likely to infuriate the voters.
Few lobbyists have it as good as those representing television broadcasters. When their deep-pocketed clients dig themselves into a deep hole - such as with the costly transition to digital television - the smart lobbyists can always pull a winning card by scaring lawmakers about the voter backlash that's sure to come if the TV viewers in their districts lose access to their precious "free TV."
Never mind there's really no such thing as free TV and that about ninety percent of Americans now get their video entertainment from pay television services - the specter of a great TV rebellion among constituents was enough to send skittish lawmakers running for the hills.
Tough talking Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA) tried to use his Cajun bravado and perceived political clout to spook broadcasters into doing as they originally promised - convert to DTV by the end of 2006. Besides, Congress is counting on the money from the sale of the analog spectrum to help balance the budget - and, gosh darn-it - a promise is a promise.
What a miscalculation! Tauzin's ploy failed miserably, forcing him during a recent Congressional hearing to take a serious pratfall from his creaky bully pulpit. The gators of broadcasting, usually sleepy and serene, came out snarling and chased poor Billy clear back into the Louisiana bayou.
Tauzin had made the mistake of tampering with mom and apple pie. Suddenly dropping his firm stance that broadcasters must return their analog spectrum to the feds within three years, Tauzin said his proposal to hold broadcasters to their promises was only "designed to provoke tension" among the DTV foot-draggers (which just happen to comprise the majority of terrestrial broadcasters).
Then, in a single sentence, the House's overseer of DTV policy handed the lobbyists the line they wanted most to hear. "I want to make clear that this is just a discussion draft; it's not a bill," Tauzin said of his proposed legislation, whose key provision would have forced broadcasters to give up their analog spectrum by Dec. 31, 2006, regardless of whether 85 percent of homes can receive a digital TV signal.
It had become clear that Tauzin's colleagues were not about to experience the "cliff effect" of voter rebellion. "The end of 2006 could also be the end of our political careers," said Rep. Eliot Engel, (D-N.Y.), sensing the political danger of abruptly replacing good old tried and true analog TV with an expensive new technology.
CABLE AND SATELLITE OUT FRONT
The fizzling of the strong arm tactics by Congress sends a signal to broadcasters. Despite the recent efforts by the FCC to force the transition, the end game is there's no political will in Congress to turn off analog television during these tough economic times. Those who predicted all along that the broadcasters would spectrum squat on both the digital and analog spectrum for the next 25 years may very well be right.
However, an irony is that the FCC's recent moves to push along the DTV transition may - at the end of the day - actually hurt terrestrial broadcasting. Earlier this year digital cable operators, in order to the please the FCC, promised to begin offering HDTV channels to subscribers by early next year. It appears major cable systems are on track to keeping their promise. In addition, the key broadcast networks are upping the amount of entertainment and sports programming to be presented in HD this season.
If HDTV takes off among upscale television viewers, the beneficiaries are likely to be cable and satellite operators, not the reticent over-the-air broadcasters. Not only will the pay services have offered viewers the first reliable source of HD programming, but the original reason for the DTV transition will have been co-opted by the broadcasters' competitors.
For broadcasters, that might be the ultimate cliff effect.
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Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.