Powell Presses On
Rebuffed in the Senate, FCC chief still insists on an aggressive schedule for return of analog channels
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/26/2004 8:00:00 PM
Despite a rebuke by a Senate committee last week, FCC Chairman Michael Powell is pushing ahead with a plan to force TV stations to return their old analog channels years sooner than they expected.
|Paying for a Quick Switch|
|Estimated cost of subsidizing DTV converters|
|Eligibility||Converters per home||Total U.S. TV Sets||Cost*|
|*Assuming $100 per converter
Source: National Association of Broadcasters,
Consumer Electronics Association
|Low income only||one||6M||$600M|
|All sets not connected to pay TV||unlimited||73M||$7.3B|
The Senate Commerce Committee last week voted to require only a small portion of the country's 1,300 TV stations to return old channels early. But Powell insists the transition to digital television will take decades unless an aggressive timetable is set for every broadcaster. What matters most, he says, is that the returned channels are for police and fire departments, many of which desperately need the frequencies to revamp patchwork communications.
"A nationwide, hard date for the end of the DTV transition would benefit everyone," Powell told the committee Sept. 8. "Right now, we have no clear idea when the transition will be over in any particular market."
Powell plans to present the FCC a final version of his plan in time for a November or December vote, but, for him to prevail, commissioners must dismiss the slower approach of the Commerce Committee, the Senate's main overseer of the FCC and communications policy.
The National Association of Broadcasters, which lobbied and convinced the Commerce Committee, effectively pushed aside legislation mirroring Powell's plan to take all analog channels by 2009. Instead, the panel voted 13-9 for a less aggressive alternative sponsored by former broadcaster Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) that would set a deadline for reclaiming only Ch. 62 and higher, which are partially earmarked for transfer to police, fire and other emergency departments around the country. His plan would transfer those channels by Jan. 1, 2008, one year sooner than Powell's plan.
Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), sponsor of the original bill, was angered by the loss and verbally attacked Burns and co-sponsors Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) for siding with the industry lobby. "The National Association of Broadcasters has been up to its old tricks, using their usual water carriers," he says.
McCain did get at least one of his provisions passed: His colleagues approved dedicating $1 billion from future auctions of TV spectrum to subsidize the costs of digital converters needed to keep old analog sets going. Who would get the money—just low-income people or all owners of the 73 million sets not connected to cable or satellite—is a debate they left for later.
Powell's office shrugged off the committee rebuke. All along, Powell has insisted that the commission can implement his plan to take back all analog TV channels by 2009 without congressional approval. But last week's vote makes such a gambit politically impossible, his critics argue. Says one broadcast lobbyist, "This should send a clear message that the FCC plan is not politically palatable on Capitol Hill."
Broadcasters have opposed Powell's effort, under development since February, because it would force them to return analog channels to the government and go all-digital years before most viewers purchase digital sets capable of displaying the high-definition pictures DTV was created to deliver.
Powell plans to resurrect his plan's chances soon. For starters, separate provisions in the legislation passed last week order the FCC to decide by Jan. 1 how extensive broadcasters' cable and satellite carriage rights should be after the digital turnover. Under the same deadline, the commission must also set broadcasters' public-interest obligations.
Agency staff already plans to add complete must-carry rights for broadcasters into the spectrum- takeback plan. Democratic commissioners for years have been demanding public-interest obligations, such as local programming and news and political-coverage quotas. If Powell throws in those sweeteners, Commerce Committee members might rethink opposition to his 2009 deadline.
Burns' alternative sets a transfer deadline only for the channels slated for emergency use, and even for those channels there are generous exemptions. Other broadcasters could keep analog channels until 85% of their local households are equipped to receive DTV service—the same standard that has been in place since Congress ordered the switch to digital in 1997.
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