No additional DTV legislation expected in 2006

While the legislation setting a hard date to end analog television remains in Congressional limbo through January, a key House leader has signaled that over-the-air television broadcasters can forget about such issues as multichannel must-carry and the broadcast flag this year.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, said his panel would not consider additional legislation this year relating to digital television, the National Journal reported. Upton’s comments came during an appearance at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Upton said he doesn’t see Congress opening up the DTV legislation within a second bill, and noted that an upcoming rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act will dominate the time of legislators this year.

Although last year’s legislation is still waiting for final House approval, Congress has agreed upon a bill that would terminate analog television broadcasting as of Feb. 17, 2009, and offer a consumer subsidy of up to $1.5 billion for the purchase of set-top boxes necessary for analog-based televisions to receive over-the-air digital signals.

Upton said the Republican-controlled House intends to simply pass the Senate version of the reconciliation bill Feb. 1, the House’s first full day back in session this year.

However, in reaching a House-Senate compromise on DTV late last year, a major provision of the original House bill was removed. The provision would have allowed cable operators to downconvert high-definition signals for analog cable customers.

By removing that provision, the final DTV bill would require as many as 40 million television households to upgrade and pay additional fees for digital cable service.

Upton acknowledged that and other more minor provisions missing from the bill, but said those issues are simply not important enough to be addressed this year.

For broadcasters, however, the lack of a second DTV bill means several major initiatives are now indefinitely stalled. Multichannel must-carry, an issue broadcasters have claimed is essential to their future, appears dead, at least for the foreseeable future. Ditto for the controversial broadcast flag, an embedded copy protection system for broadcast programming.