Barbs Exchanged Over House DTV Bill

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Lobbyists are getting edgy as negotiations heat up over a House DTV Bill to be introduced in the next two weeks. Parrying between lawmakers and various industry groups over provisions that could leave millions of old analog-TV sets inoperable provoked NAB President Eddie Fritts to trade barbs this week with Gary Shapiro, his counterpart at the Consumer Electronics Association.

At issue is CEA's appeal for a quick deadline for making broadcasters go all-digital and return their old analog channels. CEA asserts that a congressional plan to subsidize the cost of set-top converter boxes needed to keep old analog sets working should be limited as much as possible because "relatively few" Americans rely on free over-the-air broadcasts. Rather, most rely on cable and satellite for TV. CEA and NAB are also fighting over FCC rules requiring half of the most popular-sized TV sets to contain digital tuners this summer. CEA wants to do away with the 50%, and in return agrees to put digital tuners in all sets to March 1, 2006—four months earlier than currently required. NAB wants to keep the 50% test.

The trade-group chiefs didn't confront each other face-to-face, however, but exchanged broadsides in Shapiro's speech delivered to TV technology groups and in letters to lawmakers. Thursday, Fritts penned a letter to House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, leader of the DTV talks, complaining that Shapiro had "dismissed the value of free, over-the-air television" in a "series of wildly inaccurate claims." Fritts urged Barton to dismiss the overtures by CEA, which he characterized as "a trade group of offshore-receiver manufacturers."

Fritts challenged CEA claims, penned in an earlier letter to Barton, that "less than 13 percent of homes" rely exclusively on over-the-air television.

Counting pay-TV homes with more than one set, there are 73 million over-the-air television receivers not hooked to cable or satellite, Fritts said. "CEA's cavalier dismissal of these viewers ignores the potential for consumer outrage if millions of people prematurely lose access to this programming.” Fritts urged Barton not to disenfranchise "huge numbers of Americans" based on "misleading data" from foreign-based manufacturers.

Shapiro answered back in a speech Thursday to the Advanced Television Systems Committee, an industry group charged with setting technical standards for DTV.

He says broadcasters aren't doing enough to promote high-definition programming and, consequently, are jeopardizing their own future by focusing on alternative uses for DTV, such as multicasting and mobile video. Shapiro asked: "Where will the madness end?"

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