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DTV bills await congressional compromise

Now that both the House and Senate have passed different versions of DTV legislation, the next step in the legislative process is reconciliation. A group of legislators from both bodies will meet in a conference room to create a compromise version of the two bills that can pass in both bodies. Their deliberations will be behind closed doors.

Compromise, however, will not be simple. The legislation that would end analog television is part of a major budget bill that could be derailed over issues that have nothing to do with television. In fact, the House passed the bill on Nov. 18, by a vote of 217-215.

As to DTV, the House version sets Dec. 31, 2008, as the date to switch off analog television. The Senate version sets April 7, 2009, as the date to switch it off. The House bill provides $990 million to subsidize digital-to-analog conversion boxes to owners of older TV sets unable to receive digital signals. The Senate version calls for $3 billion in subsidies.

There are other sticking points. The House version would require broadcasters to provide more than $5 billion in on-air promotion for DTV. The Senate version doesn’t. The House allows cable TV operators to downconvert HD broadcast transmission to standard definition for five years after the transition. It would also require most cable TV operators to carry analog and digital versions of primary, must-carry broadcast signals. This, the House hopes, would eliminate much of the demand for converter boxes.

Neither bill addresses the multichannel must-carry issue. No dates have been specified for reconciliation of the bills.

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