Blame It on The Weather

Why Washington ends the year with unresolved issues

 Washington legislators and regulators ended the year with key media issues unresolved.

They can blame it on the weather, and that much is partly true. Gulf Coast hurricanes are to blame for pushing back some legislative and regulatory timetables, but political divisions over indecency and the digital transition also contributed to delays.

The House and Senate did eventually come up with a compromise DTV transition bill that sets the hard date for the switch from analog to digital-TV broadcasting at Feb. 17, 2009. It also sets aside as much as $1.5 billion to pay for subsidies for digital-to-analog converter boxes for viewers with analog-only TVs that would be rendered useless without them.

But even that is not yet a done deal, with the House forced to make changes and vote again on the larger budget- reconciliation package—which includes the DTV bill—due to a parliamentary maneuver by Senate Democrats invoking the Byrd rule.

No changes are expected to be made to the DTV portion. But the same Byrd rule that prevents any non-revenue–related language on a budget-reconciliation bill also stripped the DTV bill of all but the hard date and subsidy.

That still leaves unresolved the issues of whether or not cable must carry all of a broadcaster's digital signals, and whether those signals can be converted from HDTV to digital or digital to analog. Both had been addressed in a House-passed, Republican-led version of the DTV bill, which provided for downconversion but not for must-carry.

Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), for one, believes the most broadcasters will likely get will be their primary signal plus one additional multicast channel.

The DTV compromise did not sit well with everyone. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), ranking member of the telecommunications subcommittee, called the $1.5 billion figure inadequate (the Senate had proposed $3 billion), saying it would only cover 33 million of the 73 million analog-only sets, disproportionately disadvantaging the poor and minorities.

“The Republican plan simply runs out of money after 16.75 million households are covered,” he said of the compromise figure. He also co-opted a Republican hot-button issue, calling the plan a “government-forced condemnation of private property.”

After almost two years of breast-beating, hearings and legislative proposals, 2005 passed without any bill boosting FCC indecency fines, without much hope of resolution of the issue of regulating cable content, and, at press time (Dec. 28), no proposed indecency fines issued out of the FCC, which would be the first time that had happened in at least a dozen years.

Four indecency-related bills, including the House-passed bill boosting the fines, remain in the hopper, but nothing has made it into law.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) had said he hoped industry efforts to self-regulate, most recently cable-industry commitments to family-friendly tiers, would obviate the need for the legislation.

But the Parents Television Council, the prime mover in indecency complaints, remained unsatisfied, calling the first family tiers announced by Time Warner and Comcast a “very bad joke” and “more foolishness,” respectively.

The year will also end with minimal progress on a rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and an FCC that is still at least one commissioner and maybe two short of full strength.

New Commissioner Deborah Tate had been confirmed but not sworn in at press time, while the White House had not submitted a nominee for another open seat.

The FCC also has yet to take another shot at crafting new-media–ownership rules that will pass court muster.

The first part of the New Year will be packed with Hill hearings on indecency, video franchising, media competition, wireless spectrum reform, digital-content protection and more.


The Fritts Years

After an awesome 23-year run, NAB chief Eddie Fritts is about to step down. His record is awesome—but not flawless. He helped the industry shed onerous rules limiting the size and power of radio- and TV-station owners. At the end, however, he couldn't repair fissures that have divided broadcasters in fundamental ways.