DTV deadlines in doubt

Broadcasters and Commerce Committee chairman appear in agreement that 2002, 2006 are too close for comfort
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There's "not a snowball's chance in Gila Bend, Ariz.," that all 1,600 commercial broadcasters will be transmitting digitally by May 2002. That's how Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) put it last week during a hearing on the DTV conversion. Broadcasters weren't arguing. What's more, there's about as much chance they will be giving back their analog spectrum by the end of 2006.

"I think 2006 is going to be a very difficult deadline to meet," conceded Ben Tucker, executive vice president of Fisher Broadcasting and president of the NAB Television Board, but only after a lot of prodding from an irritated McCain.

At first, Tucker told McCain that broadcasters are "on track" to add a digital signal by May 2002, the date by which the FCC requires all commercial broadcasters to be broadcasting digitally. In his testimony, Tucker also said "it's not in the best interest of the broadcasting industry to delay the DTV transition." But later, he admitted that it's going to be hard to get all broadcasters up and running as quickly as Congress and the FCC would like. "Small-market broadcasters are going to run into hardships, there's no question about it," Tucker said.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman McCain, who routinely complains that broadcasters have received $70 billion of spectrum for free, found a comrade-in-arms in new committee member Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.). Fitzgerald said the government's loan of the digital spectrum to broadcasters was one of the "corporate-welfare giveaways I wanted to go to Washington to fight."

Fitzgerald joined McCain in grilling broadcasters about when they would give back the analog spectrum and also asked whether they would be willing to pay fees to stay on the analog spectrum past 2002-a suggestion the Bush administration also made in its annual budget released last week (see In Brief).

Tucker ultimately said no, with McCain adding: "What you would probably do is come to the Congress to get an extension, and that's what you are planning on doing."

Broadcasters wouldn't go so far as to say that, but they did ask Congress to require cable operators to carry all their signals-whether digital or analog, one full channel or six multiplexed.

"Undoubtedly, the most important issue for Pax TV in terms of a successful DTV transition is cable and satellite carriage of all 6 MHz of our stations' digital signals," said Jeff Sagansky, president of Paxson Communications.

"During the transition, digital cable systems must be required to carry both the analog and digital channels of local broadcasters," Tucker said. "With 70% of the American public getting their broadcast channels through cable, cable cannot be allowed to act as the digital gatekeeper."

Not surprisingly, cable's representative, Insight Communications President Michael Willner, balked at that suggestion. "Whether they convert to digital doesn't affect me at all, except that they keep trying to confiscate my property," Willner told Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Stevens was more sympathetic to broadcasters' difficulties: "I think there is a need for an extension of deadlines in existing law," he said.

In addition to dual must-carry during the transition, broadcasters want legislation requiring all TV sets to have analog and digital TV tuners by next year, which would allow consumers to get both analog and digital TV signals over the air. Broadcasters also want Congress and the FCC to help sort out the partly resolved interoperability issues between the cable industry and consumer electronics manufacturers.

Wireless companies are hungrily eyeing broadcasters' huge hunk of spectrum, planning to use it for new, super fast wireless services. Wireless companies "haven't pushed and screamed too much about this, but they're about to," warned Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). "The pressure is building for this to take place."

The FCC also wants the broadcasters to get off, promoting a plan first proposed by Paxson Communications Chairman Lowell "Bud" Paxson. According to that plan, spectrum auction winners would pay incumbent broadcasters billions to vacate their spectrum quickly.

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