Capital Watch


TV for the Blind

Activists for the blind are angry about a court decision chucking FCC rules that require narration of some prime time and children's programming. Under rules approved in 2000, network O&Os and big-market affiliates were required to provide four hours of narration a week. The mandate also applied to Lifetime, USA Network, TBS, Nickelodeon, and TNT, the top five cable networks at the time. After broadcasters sued, the court ruled that the FCC was authorized only to study whether narration would benefit the blind, not to mandate it. Now key members of Congress are trying to reverse the court. Rep. Ed Markey, the House Telecommunications Subcommittee's top Democrat, introduced legislation giving the FCC power to reinstate its narration quota. He is joined by Sens. John McCain and Ernest Hollings, the chairman and ranking Democrat of the Senate Commerce Committee, respectively. "Congress ought to give the commission clear guidance that no court could question," Markey says.

Guessing Game

Broadcasters and satellite providers disagree on how often distant superstations should be beamed into local markets. But both hate the way the FCC decided which homes qualify for imported networks. The commission is sticking by its new "Longley-Rice" model. It's a mysterious combination of math and guesswork used to predict when a home gets a clear enough picture from local ABC, CBS, NBC, or Fox affiliates. The alternative is to send expensive signal-measurement trucks to measure picture strength at a subscriber's home. Broadcasters and EchoStar, which have been fighting for years over distant network signals, wanted the FCC to tweak Longley-Rice in their respective favor. Broadcasters complain that EchoStar has stolen audience from local stations by intentionally serving hundreds of thousands of ineligible subscribers with imported signals from network superstations.

I Want My DTV

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting should do more to help public stations produce digital programming, claim congressional watchdogs. The federal grants that CPB doles out to help public-TV stations build digital transmission facilities should be expanded to pay for digital programming and production equipment, suggests the General Accounting Office. It found that most public stations are deep into the construction of DTV transmission operations but fall short on equipment and funding for programming. GAO also questioned whether another CPB program, the Television Future Fund, is too lax in doling out grants. Only about 40% of stations reported that projects paid for by Future Fund grants achieved their goal: reducing station operating costs.

Hot Seat

Fresh from its Memorial Day break, Congress is trying to get a grip on the DTV transition. On June 2, the House Commerce Committee will grill FCC Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree (above) over his plan to speed the transition. His controversial idea counts all cable subscribers as "digital" viewers, even those who can't see DTV programs unless the shows are converted back to analog. Ferree's idea ensures that broadcasters return their old analog channels to the government by roughly 2009. That's a decade earlier than expected for Americans to buy DTV sets in numbers big enough to trip the 85%-penetration trigger for the takeback. A handful of lawmakers oppose the Ferree plan because many viewers wouldn't see high-definition pictures or get other DTV benefits.