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Congress Growing Less Panicky About Analog Shutoff

At the third hearing on the DTV transition held this fall by the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee, talk of train wrecks and viewers-left-behind has subsided, with lawmakers either commending industry leaders for their great progress or picking around the edges for flaws.

A small army of witnesses brought good news to the subcommittee. David Barrett, president and CEO of Hearst-Argyle Television, speaking for NAB, described broadcasters’ $697 million education campaign as one of the greatest in the history of human communications.

He told the panel that broadcasters didn’t need a government mandate to educate the public about DTV, deflecting protests by some lawmakers that less-scrupulous broadcasters could slack on their educational efforts and instead rely on the messages of their more civic-minded competitors.

“This is an effort that is much more important than making Smokey Bear an icon,” he said.

The NAB also brought its educational effort to Congressional aides this week, drawing 170 staffers to a demo on Capitol Hill, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) reported.

Public stations are committing $50 million to the effort and are making major strides in HDTV, multicasting, and public safety applications, Jonathan Abbott, president and CEO of WGBH in Boston, told the panel. Dennis Swanson, president of station operations at Fox Television Station, said the Fox network and 35 Fox-owned stations are already running PSAs about the transition in prime time.

John Taylor of LG Electronics said his company would begin mass production of its digital-to-analog DTV converter boxes next week, and cost about $60. (The net cost to consumers would be about $20, if the $40 coupon from the government’s subsidy program is applied.)

Some witnesses and lawmakers raised other ongoing issues related to the transition.

Patrick Knorr, general manager of Sunband Broadband in Lawrence, Kan., said it is “a financially infeasibilty” for many small operators to comply with the FCC’s Sept. 11 order that many cable operators carry both analog and digital channels of local broadcasters. Sure, systems with capacity of 552 MHz or less can apply for waivers of the rule, he noted, but if operators cannot afford to upgrade equipment, what makes the FCC think they can afford a lawyer?

On the other side of the must-carry debate, Ron Bruno, president of the Community Broadcasters Association, said a lack of carriage rights, along with a massive increase in the fees big cable operators charge to lease channels, has forced him to lay off most local staff and massively cut back on local programming at this Pittsburgh Class A operation.

He suggested a new policy, in which any Class A station that ceases analog broadcasting and switches to DTV would be granted must-carry rights on the basic digital tier of cable systems within the broadcaster’s Grade B contours (not within its entire DMA, as a full-power station would be carried.)