DTV Bill Tops Busy D.C. Docket

FCC, Congress have a full plate for fall season

A digital transition bill, two new FCC commissioners and the start of the rewrite of media-ownership rules will all be on the to-do list when policymakers and regulators get back to business after Labor Day.

And once those new commissioners are in place, the FCC will face two key challenges on the indecency front.

When Congress reconvenes Sept. 6, the House and Senate Commerce Committees will each take aim at the bill that will set a hard date for the return—and auction—of analog spectrum and the launch of digital-only broadcasting.

Congressional aides say they have been working hard on the DTV bill throughout the August recess. That’s because a DTV bill needs to get to the budget committee by Sept. 16 to be included in a larger budget-reconciliation package that requires various committees to find money for the treasury.

Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairmen of the Senate and House Commerce Committees, respectively, have been struggling for months to introduce a DTV-transition bill. But it has stalled because of differences within the committees over how much of a technological Band-Aid analog-only viewers should get in the form of a subsidized converter box. There’s another battle over whether to require cable systems to carry all the non-pay channels a broadcaster can fit into its digital channel.

The hard date is now expected to be June or July 2009. Originally, it had been targeted for Jan. 1, 2009, but that date will likely change to push it past the January college bowl games, the Super Bowl and the May sweeps and into the low-viewing summer months.

“Does anybody really want to turn off those TVs?” asks former FCC Chairman Dick Wiley rhetorically. Many in Washington believe shutting off the analog signal will anger many consumers and will prove to be political poison.

Also look for the White House in early September to finally nominate two new FCC commissioners and renominate Democrat Michael Copps. Still expected to get the nods for the two Republican seats are telecom policy adviser Richard Russell and Tennessee utility commissioner Deborah Tate. Once Chairman Kevin Martin gets his Republican majority in place, “he can start to roll,” says Wiley.

The media-ownership rewrite turns on broadcast/newspaper crossownership and the definition of “market concentration,” or those markets where a broadcaster should be able to own multiple stations.

Nothing will happen fast. Don’t look for any new media-ownership rules for at least another year. Both Democratic and Republican commissioners have agreed to some public hearings and a healthy comment period.

Two other pending issues that could see action with a full complement of commissioners are both indecency- related: reconsideration of the “Bono” decision holding the f-word, even fleeting and adjectival, to be indecent and CBS’ challenge of the Janet Jackson fine.