Barton Readies Hard-Date Bill

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House Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) told broadcasters Monday that his digital-television-transition legislation will be ready in two or three weeks.

Barton said that the bill will definitely contain a "hard" deadline for cutting off old analog TV signals and making stations operate digital-only.

Still under discussion with other committee members is a possible provision that would expand broadcasters' digital cable carriage rights.

With apologies to broadcasters, Barton said he still favors a Dec. 31, 2006 deadline, but conceded he's willing to compromise with other members who want to give stations more time. Some in congress have said the cut-off could be the new third rail of politics if too many people are potentially disenfranchised.

Barton, however, ruled out extending the deadline as far out as 2009, as suggested by New York Democratic Congressman Eliot Engle.

"If we go a little later than 2006, I'm OK with that, "Barton said. "But I don't mean three years" Barton and Engle made their comments during a breakfast panel at the NAB's annual convention in Las Vegas.

Other participants included House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner.

The session was moderated by ABC News' Sam Donaldson. Barton said he continues to support using some proceeds from auctioning reclaimed analog spectrum to provide a subsidy to low-income people that would cover the cost of converter boxes needed to keep old analog sets working in the all-digital world. He said the cost of the boxes could be as low as $35 a piece. Previous estimates pegged the low-end price tag at $50 a box.

Teasing Donaldson, Barton said Congress might instead choose to pay for the subsidy by raiding the ABC pension. "We're going to name it the Sam Donaldson set top box. You are going to go out in a blaze of glory."

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