Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) dropped a bomb on broadcasters last week, suggesting Congress might need to impose a hard deadline to knock them off the analog spectrum they are supposed to return in 2006.
"I am concerned that this 'soft' deadline is thwarting the certain and swift transition to digital," said Tauzin, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "As a result, I am willing to consider exploring the idea of imposing a 'hard' deadline of 2006."
After a hearing before the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee last week, Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson softened Tauzin's statement a bit: "We're still discussing a time frame, but it's become clear to us that we need to light a fire under the broadcasters."
Tauzin and other members of Congress have recently expressed concern that broadcasters will never vacate their analog spectrum, which would prevent its use in other services, such as advanced wireless Internet.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) took another tack. Before the digital transition can take effect, he said, consumer electronics manufacturers need to get digital televisions into people's homes. To do that, he wants to require set manufacturers to include a digital TV tuner in all new TV sets by a certain date.
Both Paxson Communications Corp. Chairman Lowell "Bud" Paxson and Fisher Broadcasting President Ben Tucker said they would like to see such a law.
House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who chaired last week's hearing, said he is willing to consider the idea. "As a general rule," Upton said, "I am naturally hesitant to support any government policy which interferes in the competitive marketplace and would lead to significant cost increase to the consumer or significantly limit consumer choice."
Tauzin flatly opposed a tuner requirement, "which, in my view, will impose an unacceptably high cost on consumers."
Dave Arland, director of government relations for Thomson, said adding a tuner could add $200 to the cost of a new TV. He later admitted that costs are likely to fall once the technology is widely introduced.
While TV-station owners want Congress to step into the transition on several fronts, content providers say congressional "jaw-boning" might be enough of a jump-start. Viacom Executive Vice President Martin Franks noted that congressional talk has already pushed parties to the negotiating table.
After lawmakers earlier this month sent a letter to the FCC voicing concern over copy protection of over-the-air digital broadcasting, studios and consumer electronics manufacturers have had some success advancing their talks.
"I'm not sure we need legislation on this issue. As a result of your letter," Franks told the hearing, "we've made more progress on this issue in the past two weeks than we have in the last five years."
Studios want to protect over-the-air broadcasting from being redistributed over the Net, while consumer electronics manufacturers want viewers to have as much content to copy as possible, boosting sales of copying devices.
The copy-protection issue is just one roadblock that needs to be removed if the transition to digital is to advance. If studios don't feel safe delivering their product over the air, they will distribute it only over cable and satellite.