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
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