Capital Watch


Digital Drive

WRNN, an all-news channel serving the New York City market, aims to be the second TV station in the country to surrender its analog channel and operate digital-only. Station VP Christian French says WRNN, which needs FCC permission to shut off its analog transmitter, is just being practical. It stands to gain viewers because the new digital ch. 48 covers more of the metro market.

Although few homes can pick up WRNN's digital signal over the air, most can get the channel through their cable system. French sees immediate economic results. He'll save roughly $7,000 in monthly electric costs by shutting off analog ch. 62. The station has been powering two transmitters since its digital signal went on the air in September.

French will also save on maintenance of the analog transmitter tower, which WRNN operates atop an isolated 3,000-foot mountain in the Catskills, where winter snows often block access.

Radio Waves

As many as 512 noncommercial FM station licenses are up for grabs now that federal judges have upheld the FCC's point system for doling out educational-TV and radio licenses. A legal battle over how to issue the licenses when two or more applicants want the same channel has stalled creation of nonprofit stations for four years.

The American Family Association, which owns religious stations, had challenged the point system, arguing that the preference for local ownership discriminated against national religious networks. The court, however, ruled that locals are in the best position to judge their own educational needs.

Prognosis Negative

The Bush Administration got a dressing down from government auditors for producing prepackaged news reports that aired, often unedited, on 40 TV stations earlier this year. To promote a new White House-backed Medicare prescription-drug plan, the administration mimicked an ethically questionable practice of the PR business: offering stations ready-to-air "news" reports about the plan. The General Accounting Office found that prepackaging of news reports is illegal propagandizing when carried out by the government. The reports were aired in 33 markets between Jan. 22 and Feb. 12.

Property Rights

Viacom has hired recording-industry lobbyist David Sutphen in its Washington government-relations office. He will lead the company's lobbying on intellectual-property policies, reporting to government-affairs chief Carol Melton. Sutphen has been a lobbyist with the Recording Industry Association of America since July 2002, where he fought for copyright, free-speech, and technology-related issues. He has also worked as an aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.).

The Main Course

Despite a big push from consumer activists seeking lower subscriber fees and a crowd demanding cleaner airwaves, Congress won't let pay-TV providers offer channels "à la carte." Accepting House Commerce Committee leaders' requests, Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) (above) dropped his bid to tack such a measure onto satellite-TV legislation. "There wasn't a lot of support for that idea," committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) told small cable-system operators. Deal's plan would have barred programmers from prohibiting channel-by-channel sales to consumers.

To placate Deal, Barton and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) asked FCC to study an à la carte requirement.