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Congress mulls firm DTV deadline

The tide is shifting in Congress against television broadcasters who oppose a hard date for turning off America’s analog television system. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has endorsed a plan that would force TV stations to return their analog spectrum to the federal government by 2006.

Barton also endorsed the idea of the federal government paying for digital converter boxes for poor people who don’t receive cable or satellite television as part of the transition. Details of such a subsidy were not outlined.

While the ideas expressed at last week’s House hearing on DTV weren’t new, Barton’s enthusiastic support was unexpected. By reputation he is an advocate of free markets and an opponent of government subsidies. He surprised broadcasters, who vehemently oppose any hard deadline to complete the transition.

“Why shouldn’t the committee, this Congress or next Congress say we’re going to uphold the 2006 date and set up some sort of fund to help pay (for converter boxes) for low-income citizens?” Barton said. “Why don’t we just do that?”

While the FCC has proposed a plan that would complete the transition by 2009, it was Barton who suggested the earlier 2006 deadline. Otherwise, he said, the transition could take decades to complete. “Why shouldn’t we just short-circuit this debate about a transition that might drag out to 2009 or some other date?” Barton asked.

The chairman hammered home the reality that broadcasters no longer enjoy the political clout they once had in Congress. Barton emphasized that the government is far more interested getting return of the stations’ analog channels and selling them for new services than it is in helping the broadcasters promote DTV. "This is not about promoting high-definition directly but about reclaiming analog spectrum as soon as possible," he said.

Barton’s ranking Democratic counterpart, John Dingell, (D-Mich), also supported the fast-track plan. "Continued delay only serves to inhibit innovative companies and to dampen their ability to attract capital and create jobs," Dingell said.

According to the legislation governing the DTV transition, television stations are supposed to switch to all-digital transmissions and return their analog spectrum by the end of 2006 or by the time 85 percent of American homes can receive digital signals. Most experts believe the law will allow broadcasters to tie up both their analog and digital spectrum for at least another decade.

To speed up the transition, the FCC proposes a change in the way the government interprets the viewership threshold. Since about 85 percent of households currently subscribe to cable or satellite television services, the FCC wants to count that pay TV viewership in calculating the threshold for conversion. That would force most broadcasters to return their analog spectrum in as early as two years.

Broadcasters oppose the plan, claiming that it would allow cable and satellite companies to convert the digital signals back to analog for all their customers. Thus, they argue, few would see actual digital signals after they spent $16 billion to upgrade their stations.

Even a suggestion that the broadcasters might get their much-requested multicast must-carry from cable operators if they went along with the early transition didn’t soften NAB President Eddie Fritts, who said the plan is “against the best interests” of Americans.

Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, would have none of the must-carry talk, ruling out any deal that would give stations multichannel carriage on cable.

The movement to set a hard deadline was bolstered by the success in Germany last summer when analog signals were turned off in Berlin — leaving only digital transmissions. The U.S. General Accounting Office is currently studying the German experience and is soon expected to report on it to Congress.

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