DTV draft puts teeth in 2006

But date could change in final bill; Tauzin leans toward multiple-channel carriage

TV stations face the unsettling prospect of turning off their analog signals by the end of 2006 under draft legislation floated by key lawmakers last week. But the news wasn't all bad for broadcasters. Insiders say that date could change in the final bill, and the bill's prime mover told BROADCASTING & CABLE that cable should find room for more than a broadcaster's primary channel.

The 2006 deadline date isn't likely to hold, Capitol Hill insiders conceded. Instead, Congress is sending a clear message: An unqualified date for returning analog broadcast spectrum to the government is gaining traction inside the Beltway.

"If people think the date is not real, nobody's going to achieve it," House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) told B&C last week. "It's like saying we're going to give you an exam at the end of the semester, or maybe next year. Nobody's going to study."

Sure to spark broadcaster lobbying is that draft legislation aimed at speeding the digital-TV transition would erase a current law allowing stations to keep their analog spectrum past 2006 if fewer than 85% of homes in their market can receive a DTV signal.

Though the draft also punted, for now, on whether broadcasters should be able to demand cable carriage of multiple channels, Tauzin suggested cable must do more than offer a single channel no different from the single analog picture viewers get now. "There are deep concerns among members of Congress that, if consumers have to buy special boxes to convert sets to digital and all they get is same old signal, then what good is the transition? There's no extra value."

Under last week's draft, measures spelling out cable's multicasting obligations will be added later. Tauzin said all options are still on the table: forcing cable to carry every portion of the signal broadcasters offer free over the air, only a portion of multicasts, or only one traditional signal.

"The problem with multicasting is a question of legality," he said. "Must-carry of a single channel is very narrowly supported in jurisprudence because of First Amendment concerns. Expanding it to multicasts is going to be difficult."

The legislation unveiled last week is intended to be the base for a Wednesday hearing on digital TV by the Commerce Committee Telecommunications Subcommittee and is expected to differ substantially from final legislation Tauzin and the committee's ranking Democrat, John Dingell, hope to introduce in October. With time running out before Congress adjourns next month for election campaigning, no legislation is expected to be enacted before next year.

"The whole idea was to lay down a challenge," Tauzin said. "We're saying: 'Here's what we may do. If you've got a better idea, you better come up with it quick.'"

One thing seems certain: Broadcasters' hopes for dual cable carriage of both analog and digital signals during the DTV transition are all but dashed. The draft would forbid the FCC from mandating dual must-carry, and lawmakers aren't likely to change their minds on that issue. "Nothing's dead," said Tauzin, "but it's been fairly well decided that dual must-carry would be an onerous obligation on cable companies."

The House initiative complements FCC Chairman Michael Powell's effort to speed the transition, but Tauzin said Congress and the FCC are on separate tracks. "We've not asked them to coordinate with us. We want them to move on their own but at a faster clip."

Reaction to the draft was sharply divided along industry lines. Some broadcast officials voiced opposition. "The staff draft is a considerable disappointment because of the 85%-penetration and cable-carriage provisions," said David Donovan, president of DTV trade group Association for Maximum Service Television. "They're saying to Americans that, essentially, all television sets in use today won't work past 2006."

The National Association of Broadcasters is withholding comment on the plan until the subcommittee hearing Wednesday.

Wireless-industry officials eager for the government to auction analog spectrum for new uses praised the plan for eliminating a "loophole" for broadcast "squatters" to keep analog spectrum well after 2006. "This is the linchpin of the bill," said Travis Larson, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.

TV-set manufacturers, facing new FCC obligations to phase in digital tuners in nearly all sets, are glad to see other industries facing threat of more requirements. They praised a provision to require cable systems to incorporate technology allowing "plug-and-play" sets to work with cable without set-top converter boxes.

With the critical broadcast-carriage issue pending, cable's main trade group took a middle ground. "We look forward to working with the committee on ways to resolve the many complex issues involved in the DTV transition," read the statement of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.