Parties at hearing bicker over must-carry, end of analog
The DTV bill is just a draft. That's the message from all concerned parties on the legislative proposal that provoked consternation Sept. 25 at a House Telecommunications Subcommittee hearing.
With some ominous provisions, such as a mandatory end to analog broadcasts in 2007 - regardless of how many consumers can receive digital signals - the draft is designed to prod industry players into discussions amongst themselves to speed the digital television transition, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), the House Commerce Committee Chairman, suggested.
No one's accusing the industry groups of not talking; Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has been trying to hash out the issue for more than a decade, joked about how nice it was to see such familiar faces at the witness table, year after year. But with the fresh threat of an analog shutoff less than five years away - and as many as 300 million analog sets in American homes destined for the landfill - the inter-industry talks had better reach some solutions on key roadblocks such as copy protection and TV-cable plug-and-play compatibility, lawmakers said.
For broadcasters, the only thing scarier than the analog shutoff is the draft's apparent refusal to consider forcing carriage of both analog and digital signals on cable during the transition, a mandate they have long called essential to bringing DTV into homes. The draft leaves a space to later define cablers' carriage obligations when broadcasters "multicast" multiple channels in their digital stream. Cable operators attacked adding any obligations to cable operators, saying such mandates would skew an otherwise level playing field.
"When it comes to convincing cable operators to carry our new services, we are willing to make our case at the bargaining table based on the merits of what we are offering and consumer demand. Broadcasters should be willing to do the same," said Lana Corbi CEO of Crown Media United States, the folks behind the Hallmark Channel.
But even a cable operator noted the playing field isn't all that level. James M. Gleason, president of CableDirect and chairman of the American Cable Association, said a programming "cartel" limits customer choice, particularly in rural areas and on small cable systems like his, by bundling popular channels with less popular ones and continually increasing prices.
"This unlikely cast includes several major media conglomerates that are mandating the cost and content of most of the services we provide in smaller markets," he told the panel. "[These conglomerates] have found through media consolidation the means to use market power to extract ever-increasing earnings from all Americans.
"Consumer choice and competition, not to mention the transition to digital broadcast television, may be wiped out in the wake of the mighty merged communications giants."
That danger is exacerbated by the fact that major cable operators also own stakes in cable programming networks, NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton noted. "It's clear what the cable industry's motivation is: not to put programming streams on their system unless they have a financial stake in them," he said after the hearing.
Dual digital-analog must-carry is only a transitional goal for broadcasters. Once analog broadcasting ends, the issue will shift to multicasts. Wharton said that without cable carriage, broadcasters will never have the incentive to use that technology.
Some of the issues may be even pricklier. The proposed bill calls for "broadcast flag" technology to protect digital content (while allowing broader use of news and public-affairs programming), for an end to analog outputs on most consumer electronics and for the cable and consumer electronics industries to overcome their differences and attain universal television-cable compatibility.
The bill would also entrench in law the FCC's recent phase-in of digital TV tuners in every set, something supported by broadcasters and vigorously opposed by the Consumer Electronics Association.
The 2007 analog cutoff brought stark warnings from NAB and consumer groups, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) warned his colleagues that the end of analog broadcasting could also be the end of many Congressional careers.
But wireless interests, who have long wanted that analog TV spectrum for their businesses, have upped their public-safety arguments for the transition. Thera Bradshaw, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, told the committee that lives could have been saved during the Sept. 11 attacks if emergency workers had had more spectrum; no Congressmen challenged that assertion.
Tauzin warned that 10 years from now, the digital transition would be complete. Industries could decide meanwhile whether to reach the needed compromises on their own or have conditions legislated upon them.
"Progress has been made but these private, inter-industry negotiations seem to have come to their end point," he said. "Right now, this transition is on a collision course with consumers and we must act now to turn things around."
If the draft bill was seen by many as a wake-up call for the industries involved, a few observors said Tauzin undercut his own warnings with repeated statements that the proposal was just meant to stimulate debate. "I was a little bit disappointed that [Tauzin] bent over backwards to say that it wasn't a bill - it was just a draft," said ATSC Forum President Robert Graves said.
Several lobbyists said they do not expect passage of any DTV bill until next year.
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