Committed to the First Amendment

Get with the plan

As of last week, two out of three of the warring parties—broadcasters and TV-set manufacturers—were on board or at least willing to work toward FCC Chairman Michael Powell's voluntary plan for speeding the DTV conversion. As Powell pointed out to an NAB crowd last week, self-interest should be enough carrot to obviate a big government stick.

And whether it takes a carrot or a stick, cable needs to get some of that team spirit, too.

As every editor knows, you need deadlines. You don't always make them, but, without them, there is no hope of putting the paper to bed. Let's call them goals if deadlines sound too scary. From here, these goals seem reasonable (as contrasted with the 2002 DTV station build-out deadline, which was always unrealistic). Powell wants to start with a prod to the Big Four networks to devote 50% of their prime time schedules to HDTV/multicasting, while requiring affiliates to pass through that signal and cable to carry some kind of HDTV or digital service on up to five channels (depending on system size). Also, sets have to start sporting DTV tuners as standard equipment.

The cable industry continues to balk at giving up the channel space, but those few channels may just have to be its public-interest contribution to making this transition happen. Maybe it doesn't even seem fair. Think of it, then, as an eminent-domain issue involving the building of the information superhighway. It's your house, but, if the government decides it's in everybody's interest to have an on-ramp there, the majority rules. Well, giving up those channels may be the DTV on-ramp.

Not everyone may be ready to say "Hallelujah," as NAB attorney Valerie Schulte did, in response to Powell's plan. A quiet "Amen" or even a grudging "OK" will do.

Easy call

If anyone ever questioned why we argue so passionately for keeping the government out of the broadcasting business, they need look no further than an attempted legislative gambit that came to light last week.

Sen. Robert Smith (R-N.H.) proposed an amendment to election-reform legislation that would have fined broadcasters up to $10 million and/or jail them for broadcasting election information turning out to be "false." Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed; the amendment was canned. Still, an alternative amendment that was included charges a newly created Election Administration Commission with studying how election results are broadcast and reporting to Congress. This was all prompted, of course, by broadcasters' difficulty in calling some states correctly in the 2000 election, one of the hardest to call in U.S. history.

One easy call was the proper fate of this wacky amendment, which was roundfile material from the get-go. But the more reasonable-sounding commission bears watching as well.