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Barton to Broadcasters: Think 2006

Congressman Joe Barton didn't waste any time letting broadcasters know where he stands on the digital transition. Attending his first DTV transition hearing Wednesday as the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Barton (R-Texas), made it clear that he considered 2006 a perfectly good deadline for the return of analog spectrum.

The hearing, held in subcommittee, was called to educate lawmakers about the eponymous plan put forth by FCC Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree to recover the spectrum by 2009. The Ferree Plan would turn cable headends into de facto digital-to-analog converters, potentially adding about 50 million-plus households to the distribution threshold that triggers the analog return, i.e., 85 percent of households in a given designated market area.

One witness noted that only one lawmaker was being educated by the end of the hearing--all but Telecom Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton, (R.-Mich.) took a powder.

In a statement issued after the hearing, Barton noted that Ferree's proposal was consistent with the language in the Balanced Budget Act that indicates cable and satellite subscribers can be included in the total if certain conditions are met.

"Consistent with the statute, the Media Bureau proposal would count consumers toward the 85 percent that can view digital broadcasts even if they were watching on analog televisions in ordinary definition over their cable or satellite service," Barton said, spontaneously creating the new category of "ordinary definition" television. "This is appropriate. [The law] is not about promoting high-definition television directly, but about reclaiming the analog spectrum as soon as possible while minimizing the number of consumers who must take additional steps after the transition to continue watching television."

Barton's only nit apparently was Ferree's overly generous three-year extension on the original deadline. He asked hearing witnesses why Congress shouldn't simply uphold the original 2006 deadline and buy converter boxes for all broadcast-only households.

Go ahead and try, broadcasters say privately. They'd like to see the government just try to buy and distribute converter boxes for every OTA-only household in the country. First of all, the actual number of OTA-only households is a matter of some debate. While it's widely accepted to be around 15 million; the NAB often says there are at least 80 million OTA-only televisions in the hands of consumers, who are still buying analog sets at five times the rate of digital sets sales.