Capital Watch


Payback Time

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) added a few swipes to the slap the White House received last month from government auditors. The General Accounting Office found that the Department of Health and Human Services engaged in illegal propagandizing by providing TV stations packaged "news" reports about a new White House-backed Medicare prescription-drug plan, which Bush subsequently signed into law. Now Lautenberg wants the Bush-Cheney campaign to refund the money paid to prepare the reports, which contained scripts for station anchors to read and tape of hired spokespeople posing as reporters.

"Don't use the people's money to promote your bid for reelection," Lautenberg trumpeted in introducing a bill that would require the Bush campaign to reimburse the Treasury for the press packages. The cost of the Medicare outrage? A little over $40,000.

Peace Talks

After winning a power struggle, Eddie Fritts (above) can apparently stay at the helm of the National Association of Broadcasters for a long time. Besides continuing as NAB president through 2006, he'll have the option of sticking around for at least a year longer, an NAB board member reports. Fritts's new contract will be formalized next week. With radio board members backing him, Fritts defeated a coup lead by Joint TV/Radio Board Chairman Phil Lombardo, who, ironically, heads the contract talks. Fritts's current pact expires this year.

The dust-up so angered radio members that they threatened to push Lombardo from his post. Now that Fritts has settled his score, Lombardo's fate appears secure. Still unknown is how obviously NAB will plan for Fritts's succession.

Flag Waving

Broadcasters must defend one of the biggest items on their DTV wish list in court, despite their best efforts to stymie the case. Federal judges in Washington won't honor their request to delay a decision on the fate of the FCC's "broadcast flag," a technology designed to block TV programs from being transmitted illegally over the Internet. Those who want to preserve rules requiring the flag in DTV sets hoped the judges would halt their review until the FCC completed its own reconsideration

Consumer-activist groups and library associations want the court to strike down the FCC's mandate that digital TVs and recording devices honor the flag, a special code embedded in programs that tells TVs and TiVos not to let a show be streamed over the Internet.

Broadcasters and Hollywood fought for the rules initially to protect the value of high-definition movies and other digital content, which would be diminished greatly if shows were distributed free over the Web. Consumer activists, however, say the restriction violates home-recording rights. They think the FCC has no jurisdiction to impose the rules. It's almost certain the court will rule before the flag mandate kicks in July 1, 2005. Once the mandate becomes effective, set makers are unlikely to remove the technology from their sets, even if they can, given the cost of retooling.

Old School

Although his duty is to oversee the switch to digital TV, don't expect House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) to lead by example. He admits he's not interested in paying thousands for DTV's beautiful, big-screen picture or the ability to get a half dozen new channels from each local station. "There are some people who are never going to pay the money for a high-definition television," he said during a hearing on DTV last week. "I'm probably one of them."