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Barton Skips Dessert

Joe Barton, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, was amiable enough when he launched into his luncheon keynote address at this week's MSTV conference. He spoke of his engineering background as if he were a member of the Order of the Iron Test Pattern. Then he launched the talking points that characterize his position with regard to the broadcast industry, which clearly for Barton does not enjoy the status of big energy.

"I prefer a hard date of Dec. 31, 2006," he said, referring to the sunset of analog television.

Establishing a hard date for the return of analog broadcast spectrum has been the hot topic inside the Beltway this year, particularly after April, when FCC Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree unveiled a plan around a deadline of Jan. 1, 2009.

Ferree's plan irked broadcasters because his formula for achieving the 85-percent audience-reach threshold was to have cable operators convert digital broadcast signals for analog customers, who would then be included in the count. (He has consistently pleaded complete unawareness of any animosity from broadcasters, and has doggedly insisted that his plan would have a salutary effect on over-the-air television.) However, his emerging position that must-carry should cover all free bits has somewhat diminished the demand for rotten tomatoes when he shows up on the D.C. broadcast circuit.

The Ferree Plan, or as he prefers to call it, "the Plan Formerly Known as 'Ferree,'" kicked off a series of hearings and debates on Capitol Hill about how to recover the analog broadcast spectrum. Later, recommendations of the 9-11 Commission prompted Sen. John McCain, head of the Senate Commerce Committee, to craft a bill that mirrored the Ferree Plan. At Committee vote, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) amended the bill to recover only public-safety spectrum by the end of 2007. McCain accused his colleagues of buckling under pressure from broadcast lobbies.

That legislation was attached to the Senate's intelligence reform bill, which was still under consideration this morning.

"I'm aware of what Sen. McCain did, and what Sen. Burns did to Sen. McCain," Barton told the assemblage of broadcasters, reporters and regulators.

Barton was unusually candid for a politician in an enemy camp. Appointed chairman in February, Barton came out gunning for the 2006 deadline.

"The primary reason we're going to do this is dollars," he said. "Energy and Commerce don't have a lot of places to generate revenue, and the spectrum office is one of them." He told broadcasters to expect a hard shut-off date to be established during the next Congress.

His second talking point was unlicensed devices, for which he said he'd have CEA President Gary Shapiro write a one-pager.

"And that's what I'll do," he said.

Barton said he was "just kidding," but the room did not explode in raucous laughter. The Congressman favors the development of unlicensed devices, but said he didn't think a statute would be necessary to deal with interference.

Then somewhat unexpectedly, Barton launched into a disputation about Dan Rather. 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 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.)

After a couple of minutes pontificating about the First Amendment, Barton said he intended to initiate hearings into the way broadcast news is handled. "I personally don't see the same standards of authentication we once had," he said.

Barton said he was "considering, after the election, having the Committee watch newscasts," leaving observers to wonder if House Committee members are getting their news from Comedy Central's "Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

After Barton delivered his screed, he quickly exited the luncheon without joining the group for dessert.