Fast Track


Barton Wants To Help Pay for DTV

House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) last week acknowledged for the first time that the government must help some Americans pay for digital TV equipment in order to speed the DTV transition.

“We're probably going to have some kind of subsidy,” Barton said during a hearing on DTV's problems.

He plans to introduce a DTV bill soon that would give broadcasters a firm deadline for going all-digital. He prefers Dec. 31, 2006, but hasn't said whether that date would be in the bill.

That legislation, presumably, would also spell out how many Americans would be entitled to government payouts to help them buy digital converters that will be needed to keep their old analog TV sets working after stations stop offering analog broadcasts. Without converters, the 73 million analog TV sets not connected to cable or satellite receivers would become useless.

Barton didn't give any details of his subsidy plan, however. Until he gives specifics, it's impossible to gauge how expensive his plan will be and how much support his has among fellow lawmakers.

A study by the Government Accountability Office estimates that subsidizing digital equipment for consumers could cost anywhere between $460 million and $10 billion, depending on how many households are eligible for a subsidy and how many digital-ready sets they would get.

GAO's lowest estimate calls for providing only one $50 digital-to-analog converter to the 9.3 million households at the lowest income levels. Providing a box to nearly every household in America would cost $10 billion.—B.M.

USA Goes To the Dogs

USA Network has signed for another dozen years as home to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (roughly 84 years from the dog's perspective). It is the longest rights deal of any kind, dog or human years, in the network's history.

USA's current five-year contract would have expired in 2006, but the new deal will take the agreement through 2016, or what would be USA's 34th straight year covering the show, which bills itself as the second oldest U.S. sporting event (140 years old) behind the Kentucky Derby.—J.E.

FCC Proposes Break on TV-Set Deadline

TV manufacturers would not be required to meet this summer's deadline for building digital-TV tuners into their popular midsize sets under a proposal the Federal Communications Commission is considering.

In response to a petition by the Consumer Electronics Association, the FCC Monday proposed eliminating a July 1 deadline by which 50% of TV sets between 25 and 36 inches must include a tuner enabling reception of stations' digital signals. In return, set makers have offered to include digital tuners in all sets that size by March 1, 2006, three months earlier than they are now required.

CEA argues that sticking with the 50% deadline accomplishes nothing beyond filling warehouses with unsold sets because customers who buy sets 36 inches and smaller tend to choose less- expensive models rather than those with pricier options. Until all sets contain DTV turners—a step that will bring down the price of the receivers—the devices will add roughly $180 or more to the costs of any set.

The FCC imposed the DTV-tuner mandate in 2002, fearing that, unless manufacturers were required to add digital receivers, consumers would continue buying analog-only sets for years.

TV stations will not be required to go all-digital and shut off their analog signals until 85% of TV homes are equipped to receive digital programming either other the air or via pay TV. All TV sets, including those 24 inches and smaller, must incorporate DTV tuners by July 1, 2007.—B.M.

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Tim Nesvig, 30, Dies

Timothy Willem Nesvig, 30, account executive at ESPN/ABC Sports Customer Marketing and Sales in New York and the son of Jon Nesvig, president of sales for Fox, died Feb. 8 at City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte, Calif., after an 18-month battle with lymphoma.

He is survived by his parents, Jon and Hanneke Nesvig, of Riverside, Conn., and two sisters, Mieke and Carrie Nesvig, both of New York. A memorial service will be held Monday, Feb. 28 at 4:30 p.m. at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Tax-deductible donations may be made to the Tim Nesvig Fellowship for Lymphoma Research, City of Hope Cancer Center, c/o Kathleen Kane, 1055 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 1200, Los Angeles, CA 90017.—J.E.

Buffett Boosts Cable Stake

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway doubled its stake in Comcast Corp. According to a securities filing, Berkshire boosted its stake in the cable operator from 5 million shares in September to 10 million shares in December.

Buffett's Comcast stake is less than 1% of the cable operator's outstanding shares. At $340 million, it represents just a sliver of Berkshire's $34 billion in stock investments.

FCC Tells Cellphone Firms: Cut the Sex

With cellphone video-content deals announced almost daily, John Muleta, the chief of the FCC's Wireless Bureau, is recommending steps the industry can take to ensure that children using mobile services aren't exposed to X-rated content.

Specifically, Muleta, in a letter to Steve Largent, president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, called on cellphone providers to make sure parents know they can block their children's phones from accessing the Internet or pay-per-call voice services. Also, Muleta said parents should be informed of the types of content available through mobile-phone access.—B.M.

Iced NHL Season Saves ESPN Cold Cash

When the National Hockey League pulled the plug on its season last week, it became the first major sports league to cancel an entire season. ESPN saves $60 million in rights fees and is expected to decide by April whether it will take an option for next year.

Given that replacement programming has performed twice as well as hockey did last year, ESPN has a lot of leverage to drive rights fees down even further (it had already cut them to $60 million from $120 million in 2003-04).

NBC won't be saving any cash because its deal called for revenue-sharing for 13 regular-season and playoff games and as many as five Stanley Cup Finals games.—K.K.

Merrill's Fawcett Dies

Merrill Lynch media analyst Keith Fawcett died Feb. 13. Fawcett, 50, analyst had been ill for months and had given up most of his coverage last year. He spent nine years at Merrill, primarily covering broadcast stations as part of the media research team led by Jessica Reif Cohen.

He is survived by his wife, Sally, and children Elizabeth, Rebecca and Samuel.