Showdown at the Capitol Hill Corral

John McCain had broadcasters in his crosshairs this week, but when the Senate Commerce Committee Chairman pulled the trigger, he discovered that he was armed with a Super Soaker.

On Monday, McCain introduced a bill to establish a hard date of Jan. 1, 2009 to end all analog TV broadcasting. By Wednesday, the bill was amended to allow the FCC to waive the deadline "to the extent necessary to avoid consumer disruption."

There were stations that got wet in the fray, however. The 75 stations at 764-776 MHz (Channels 63, 64) and 794-806 MHz (Channels 68, 69) would have to move by Jan. 1, 2008, should this legislation survive election-year politics. Those stations occupy spectrum that was designated for public safety in the 1997 Balanced Budget Act. Similarly targeted legislation in the House would require the return of the 700 MHz broadcast spectrum by Dec. 31, 2006.

Of the stations broadcasting in the 700 band, 65 are analog; 10 are digital; and about one-third are Spanish-language stations. Affected stations in clued Univision affiliates in Miami, Tampa, Sacramento and Philadelphia, and Paxson stations in San. Francisco, Boston, Indianapolis and Dallas.

Under the bill marked up on Wednesday, known as the "Save Lives Act," broadcasters in the 700 MHz spectrum would only have to move if a public-safety agency requested the spectrum.

McCain was fired up over the amendment, introduced by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), because it nullifies the bill's analog shut-off deadline. The senior senator from Arizona, whose term expires in January, accused his colleagues of buckling under lobbying pressure from broadcasters, who are the only purveyors of media required to provide airtime to political candidates.

For NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts, the vote on the bill was a victory.

"Today's vote balances the legitimate needs of public safety providers while limiting the disruption of local television service to millions of consumers. NAB thanks Sens. Stevens, Burns, Hollings and Inouye--along with other Senators who supported the Burns amendment--for recognizing the importance of a vibrant, universal and free system of local broadcasting," Fritts said in a statement.

Other language in the bill would require television set-makers, as of Sept. 30, 2005, to label analog sets with information that they won't pick up over-the-air TV signals as of Dec. 31, 2008, without a digital receiver. The bill would also initiate a public education program about the transition to DTV, and establish an assistance program for those who need set-top converters--no later than Jan. 1, 2008.