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Washington Watch

7/15/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Digital Dollars

The government's price tag for switching to digital TV keeps going up. The most controversial piece of legislation aimed at allowing the government to shut off and reclaim TV stations' old analog channels is the size of a federal subsidy aimed at helping viewers buy converter boxes needed to keep their analog sets working after Jan. 1, 2009, when TV is slated to go all-digital.

The money would be a small portion of the $30 billion-$40 billion the government hopes to raise by auctioning most of the reclaimed channels to wireless companies.

Sen. Joe Barton (R-Texas) wants to keep the cost at a half billion dollars or less by giving one $50 box to each of 9 million low-income households. Democrats argued that no one should be forced to shell out dough because of the government-mandated switch. Their plan is to pay for converters for each of the 73 million analog sets not connected to cable or satellite.

Now the cable industry is floating its own subsidy, which could end up costing the government nearly $7 billion.

Last week, National Cable & Telecommunications Association Chief Kyle McSlarrow mused during a Senate hearing that the government should kick in another 61 million boxes for cable customers who get only analog service. These customers, he said, would need an upgrade when the old channels go dark in order to see local broadcasts. McSlarrow was only half serious; his real aim was to persuade Congress that cable should be allowed to continue airing local stations in analog to prevent a costly switch-out of cable boxes.

Cable-box subsidy
Option Number Cost
Sources: FCC, NCTA, NAB
Low-income 9M $450M
All over-air TVs 73M $3.65B
Plus analog cable sets 134M $6.7B

PBS Survives Budget Threat

The Senate is on track to restore nearly $100 million in public-broadcasting funds for fiscal 2006, including money for kids' shows and the digital transition that was cut by the House last month. The funds were approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week and would keep the federal government's contribution to public broad-­casting at roughly the same level as 2005. The money must still be approved by the full Senate and agreed to by the House. With another $100 million-plus from the House, the Senate is on track to eliminate nearly all of the $211 million cut recommended by the House Appropriations Committee.

“These numbers are a strong statement of continued bipartisan support of public broadcasting,” notes John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations.

The Senate committee included $25 million for Ready to Learn, the program that funds educational shows like Sesame Street, Postcards From Buster and Clifford the Big Red Dog, as well as $40 million in funds for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's replacement of its satellite- interconnection program and $35 million to help stations construct digital-broadcasting towers and studios.

The proposed cuts came amid alleged political bias in PBS programming, and efforts by CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson to add news shows with a conservative point of view to the lineup.

Former Powell Aide Switches to Fox

Jonathan Cody, former media advisor to ex-FCC Chairman Michael Powell, has left Washington for a West Coast job with Fox Television. Cody will be Fox TV's director of business development for digital media and technology. The newly created post is a change in career paths from lawyering to business operations, he says, and a “great opportunity” to get away from Washington.

Joining Powell's crew just months after earning his law degree from Catholic University in Washington, Cody worked for the FCCfrom June 2001 to March 2005. Cody says his proudest accomplishment was helping the chairman map out policies that encouraged broadcasters, cable companies and telephone providers to speed rollout of their digital services.

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