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Barton Buffaloes Broadcasters

Congressman plays Dan Rather card


If Joe Barton plays cards like he plays politics, he goes straight for the showdown. The Congressman from Ennis, Texas, recently told a room full of broadcasters at the MSTV Annual TV Conference that he would initiate hearings into the Dan Rather debacle once the election was over.

Rather, the senior CBS News anchor, went to air with a report critical of the president's National Guard service based on unauthenticated documents. Barton, Republican Chairman of the House Commerce Committee, scolded CBS for allowing Rather to be both news director and anchor. (Rather is actually managing editor and anchor of the "CBS Evening News." According to CBS News, Bill Felling serves as news director.)

Ignoring a long and venerable record of media transgressions, Barton lamented the current state of American journalism.

"I personally don't see the same standards of authentication we once had," he said after extolling the sanctity of the First Amendment.

Barton was chintzy about just how such hearings would be conducted, but said they wouldn't occur before the November election.

Barton's reference to Rather wasn't lost on broadcasters, who occupy spectrum that lawmakers want back toot sweet. Since Barton became committee chairman last March, he's made it clear that he favors the original 2006 deadline set forth in the Balanced Budget Act for the recovery of analog broadcast spectrum.

"The primary reason we're going to do this is dollars," he said.

Barton acknowledged shutting down analog TV signals 27 months from now would require the distribution of digital-to-analog converters for the millions of households with analog-only TV sets. Asked how he envisioned administering such a program, Barton said it could be done with rebates, and he bluntly dismissed any notion that spectrum-auction proceeds might not cover the cost of millions of D-A converters.

"I'm not concerned at all," he said.

The spectrum in question--Channels 52-69--is anticipated to bring as much as $50 billion at auction, but previous auctions for licenses at Channels 54, 55 and 59 generated only $145 million. At a unit price of $50, supplying all broadcast-only homes with D-A converters would cost around $1 billion. Standalone D-As currently sell for around $300, but manufacturers acknowledge that mass demand would bring down the price within a few years.

There is general agreement on Capitol Hill to earmark $1 billion in auction proceeds for D-A converters, although no administrative costs have been determined.

Legislation being debated in the Senate at press time included a provision of $1 billion for buying and installing D-A converters. The provision was part of Sen. John McCain's Save Lives Act, which also called for the return of broadcast spectrum in the 700 MHz band by the end of 2007; the labeling of analog-only sets by Sept. 30, 2005; and a ruling on public-interest obligations and digital must-carry by the FCC before the end of this year.

The Save Lives Act became an amendment on an omnibus intelligence reform bill that legislators hoped to pass before a target adjournment date of Oct. 8.

Should those provisions survive conference, 75 full-power stations will have to end analog operations by Dec. 31, 2006. A hard date for full analog shutdown will not likely be established until next year, but Barton assured broadcasters it was imminent.

He further endeared himself to the group with a comment about unlicensed devices, which broadcasters are loath to allow in unused adjacent channels because of potential interference to TV signals.

Setting the tone for his position, Barton said, "I want [CEA President] Gary Shapiro to write a one-pager on that, and that's what I'll do. ...just kidding, just kidding. However, I don't think we should use existing technology to stop the development of new technology."

As for interference, he said "we could probably do this with hearings and the FCC. It won't need a statute."

Barton neglected to share his efforts to increase fines for broadcast indecency ten-fold, and to fine performers who perpetrate indecency violations up to $500,000. That legislation was being hammered out at press time for inclusion in a Department of Defense reauthorization package.

Barton, an industrial engineering graduate from Purdue University, was an energy consultant in Texas before embarking on his 20-year Congressional career. His background in broadcasting includes wiring classrooms at Texas A&M with coax cable.

Reaction to Barton's remarks, delivered at the conference luncheon, was subdued.