Barton's Opening Shot
House Commerce chairman girds for battle with broadcasters
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/17/2004 8:00:00 PM
One more try
House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton will wage his first battle against broadcasters as early as next month when he pushes his plan to take back TV stations' old analog channels by the end of 2006.
The showdown will be the first true test of the Texas Republican's political muscle against one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. Since succeeding Louisianan Billy Tauzin as Commerce chairman late last year, the pro-business conservative has taken the opposite side from broadcasters only once before, when he backed greater fines for indecency.
But now Barton sees reclaiming TV spectrum to redistribute to local safety departments and wireless companies as essential for homeland security and the economy. If Congress takes no action on reclaiming analog channels, stations won't be required to return the frequencies until 85% of TV households are equipped to receive DTV signals, which could add years, even decades to the transition.
Barton's aggressive pace puts him at odds with broadcasters, who are trying to hold on to as many of their old channels as they can, at least until most consumers have purchased a DTV set capable of receiving programming on stations' new digital channels. Barton's plan was passed by the House on voice vote as a non-binding resolution known as a "sense of the House." Still, Barton's effort hasn't been entirely symbolic. Putting the House position on paper gives him bargaining power if the Senate insists on pushing a more lenient plan it passed two weeks ago, which would reclaim only channels 62 and higher rather than all analog channels.
"There are lots of players in this battle, and this is Barton's opening shot," says Paul Gallant,
Washington analyst for Schwab Capital Markets. "His main goal is to make sure there's no piecemeal DTV legislation this year."
Besting the broadcasters will be a Texas-size order. Sen. John McCain, Barton's counterpart in the Senate, already sponsored a version that would have set a 2009 deadline for returning all analog channels—only to see his own committee water it down after lobbying by broadcasters. Barton will find the going even tougher in the House, where lawmakers represent smaller districts and are much more likely to be on a first-name basis with station owners.
Still, Barton is undaunted—and argues that broadcasters will be better off in the long run if channels aren't reclaimed piecemeal, as the Senate has voted to do. "We can turn spectrum over to public safety sooner, and all broadcasters will be able to move to their final digital channels," he told colleagues during statement on the House floor Oct. 8.
Already, broadcasters' allies are challenging Barton's 2006 deadline and parroting the broadcasters' prediction of dire consequences if channels are too quickly reclaimed. "It could result in many consumers' losing their television service," warned Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the Commerce Committee's ranking member. "That must not happen."
Congress is now in recess, as lawmakers have returned home to campaign for the Nov. 2 elections. The battle for the channels will resume either
after the election, when Congress returns for a lame-duck session, or in the 2005 Congress.
If Barton can't derail a vote on the DTV issue this year, his hope is that the non-binding language will give House negotiators the muscle to toughen the language in the anti-terrorism bill to make broadcasters return more of their analog channels sooner.
Broadcasters have more at stake during the lame-duck session than the pace of the digital transition. Both the House and Senate have plans to boost FCC indecency fines to a maximum of $500,000 per incident, up from $27,500 today. The fines also would be applied to performers as well as to stations.
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