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NAB Suggests Tweaks for Ferree Plan

Broadcasters aren't exactly rolling out the welcome mat for an analog shut-off hard date, but a letter to the FCC signed by 25 broadcast groups indicates their acknowledgement of the inevitable.

Give us full must-carry, signal protection, converter-box subsidies or give us no hard date, the letter said, although in a much more scholarly tone. Oh yeah, and get a grip on your jones to unleash unlicensed devices in our white space, at least until the transition is complete, broadcasters told the FCC, although in a much more diplomatic tone.

Facing a returning law-making body that is pathologically tax-averse and therefore cash-strapped, broadcasters not living in caves know they can't possibly hold onto their transition spectrum much longer. There may also be changes afoot in the structures of the Senate Commerce committee that will leave broadcasters without any poison pills to kill disagreeable hard-date legislation.

Based on pre-election maneuvers, the lawmakers stand as follows: Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.) the outgoing head of the Senate Commerce Committee, wants a hard date of 2009 with $1-billion converter-box subsidy fund. McCain's legislation to that effect was shot down by the Senate, but only because Sen. Conrad Burns, (R-Mont.), head of the Communications Subcommittee, amended it at the last minute--it was attached to the intelligence reform bill that was being fast-tracked for a pre-election Rose Garden ceremony that never occurred.

Rep. Joe Barton, (R-Texas), head of the House Commerce Committee, wants analog operations shut down by the 2006 deadline originally proposed in the Balanced Budget Act.

President Bush would rather tax broadcasters than pay for converter boxes out of auction proceeds, as McCain proposed. Lawmakers have been a bit touchy-feely about taking an action that would conceivably deprive millions of citizens of television--in part because no one knows for sure just how many millions there are, and where they live. (Burns's move suggests, for example, he believes there may be a few over-the-air viewers in Montana who won't be pleased when their sets go dark.)

The broadcast groups, in their letter to the FCC, gently reminded lawmakers that paltry action has been taken to protect consumers in the event of a shut-off hard date.

"Consumers have also made and increasingly will make large investments in digital television sets, while the government has also allowed analog sets to be sold in great numbers, even though it seeks to bring the digital transition to conclusion," the letter stated.

The only way to protect the consumers who are buying analog sets at a rate of 3:1 over digital sets is to impose full must-carry, the letter goes on to say.

The cable lobby, having been down this road so often, responded with a statement that was just shy of, "tell it to the hand."

"The latest FCC filing by the broadcast industry is simply a recycled version of broadcasters' previous demands that cable operators be required by the Commission to carry half a dozen or more video channels per broadcast station rather than let multicast carriage be determined by market competition," NCTA President and CEO Robert Sachs said in a statement."