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On Deck for '06 in D.C.

With the Consumer Electronics Show in the can and lawmakers back in town from the holiday, it's business as usual in Washington, D.C.

The House, scheduled to reconvene Jan. 31, is occupied with finding a replacement for Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the former majority leader and biology major who is experiencing serious relationship problems with a grand jury. Once in session, members of congress will have to again vote on S.1932, the budget bill containing the Feb. 17, 2009, analog sunset legislation. Lawmakers in the senate slapped an amendment on the bill in the wee hours before the holiday break, forcing another vote in the House, which passed it the first time by only six votes.

In the other wing of the Capitol, several senators are busy making Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito's wife cry and otherwise trying to prove the judge is a redneck. The Senate will officially reconvene Jan. 18.

Several Senate Commerce committee hearings are already scheduled for the upcoming session. The discussion on TV and radio content decency--or indecency, as the case may be--continues Jan. 19 at 10 a.m. before a full committee. Jack Valenti, former chief of the movie lobby; Brent Bozell, head of the Parents TV Council; Marty Franks of CBS and Bruce Reese, joint board chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters will testify. All five participated in a roundtable discussion before select committee members in mid-December. Others scheduled to testify include Dish chief Charlie Ergen; David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast; Alan Rosenberg, president of the Screen Actors Guild; and Jeff McIntyre of the American Psychological Association.

Days after the decency roundtable discussion last month, when FCC Chairman Kevin Martin tossed out a la carte pricing as an alternative to the creation of family tiers on cable, several cable operators coincidentally rolled out family tiers. Bozell, possibly the nation's most strident critic of television content, was unimpressed and continues to agitate for a la carte.

Meanwhile, the FCC suspended the start of new rules governing kids TV programming. As of Jan. 1, the new rules would have required broadcasters to provide three hours of kids' TV on all channels, including digital weather nets; and to tighten advertising parameters for kids' shows. Several networks got together and offered the FCC a less stringent set of rules, which they agreed to voluntary implement March 1 if the FCC does not act on its own rules.

Other hearings scheduled in Commerce include one on Internet pornography, also scheduled for Jan. 19, at 2:30 p.m. Another on the broadcast "and audio" flag will be held Jan. 24 at 10 a.m.; competition and convergence will be discussed Jan. 26 at 10 a.m.; video franchising is on the docket for Jan. 31 at 10 a.m., with video content to be examined that day at 2:30; 'Net neutrality is front and center Feb. 7 at 10 a.m.; "FCC Activity and Policy" is the title of a hearing scheduled for 10 a.m. Feb. 15; spectrum reform is the topic of a 10 a.m. March 2 hearing; rural telecom for 10 a.m. March 7; VoIP, 10 a.m., March 14; and at 2:30 that same day, "Wall Street's Perspective on Telecommunications."

As for what the FCC will be up to, Martin gave a rundown of what he expects to deal with in '06 during his chat with consumer electronics lobby chief Gary Shapiro at CES in Vegas, where it's always a good idea to confirm one's room reservation before showing up.

Martin said planning the logistics of the broadcast spectrum auctions are in the pipeline; while some actual auctions (for recovered government spectrum) are scheduled to commence this summer. The broadcast spectrum auctions will tentatively begin about a year from now, should the House approve S.1932 and the president sign it. Martin said he also expects to deal with media ownership rules, which will undoubtedly require a full commission, something he does not yet have. The seat that he abandoned to become chairman remains unfilled.

The chairman also said unlicensed devices will be dealt with this year, although not necessarily to the liking of broadcasters, who are unenthusiastic about having all manner of radio freq gear unleashed in taboo channels. Content decency will continue to loom large at the FCC, and the broadcast flag is likely to get more ink at the commission if so directed by Congress. The courts ruled last year that the FCC didn't have the authority to implement the flag without a Congressional directive. Martin said if the FCC gets one, it would be logical that it cover both radio and television.