Fast Track


House Passes Digital-TV Bill

Converter subsidy is $2 billion question

The battle lines over the exact date—and cost—of the nation's transition to digital TV have been drawn.

Late last week, the House passed the Commerce Committee's DTV-transition bill, a Republican-driven plan for a $990 million subsidy that would help only those analog viewers who actively seek it out.

The opposing plan is from the Senate, which wants to use a big chunk of money from spectrum auctions—$3 billion—to ensure that no analog TV is left behind when Congress pulls the plug on that service sometime in 2009.

Some Republicans see the Senate plan as a handout, while Democrats frame the House plan as an attempt to preserve tax cuts with treasury infusions that should be going to subsidize new digital boxes for the poor, minorities and elderly.

Critics have complained about the TV industry's slow pace of transitioning from analog to digital. Now the bills go to conference, where the two sides will be forced to come up with a compromise for a hard date.

The two bills are only a few months apart on the hard date for returning analog spectrum. The House says Dec. 31, 2008, while the Senate version calls for April 7, 2009. It won't take much to split that difference. The spectrum will then be auctioned; estimates range from $10 billion to as much as $30 billion.

The main difference is the amount of the subsidy for a converter box to allow each family to convert its analog-only sets into digital tuners. The House version is a first-come, first-served plan that rewards the first people who get an application, apply to the government for the subsidy, then redeem the coupons for $40 toward a converter box (up to two coupons per household).

The subsidy will cover only the first 10 million or so households that need them. Some estimates put the number of analog-only households at more than 20 million, many of them older people and minorities who might not have access to online forms or be eager to have extended dealing with the government.

The Senate subsidy would cover all who need the box, simply sending everyone a $40 coupon. Whatever the outcome, the negotiations are likely to stretch into 2006.

IFC Plans 'Greg The Bunny' DVDs

The Independent Film Channel has a new appreciation for Greg the Bunny. In January, IFC will release a two-disc DVD set with characters from Greg the Bunny, the adult puppet show it picked up from New York public-access cable in 1999; Fox aired a Greg sitcom in 2002 but cancelled it after 11 episodes.

IFC picked it up again after Fox found a cult following for the show on DVDs, selling more than 100,000 units in its first few months on the market.

Now IFC will release a 198-minute DVD with the 13-episode season that ran this summer, material from the initial batch of IFC interstitials in 1999, and exclusive made-for-DVD commentary from the directors and lead characters Greg the Bunny and Warren the Ape.

The DVD, in the works at IFC for the past three months, will sell for up to $30 on IFC's newly launched online store and its movie theater in New York. As part of a 10-show deal announced last summer, Netflix will get an exclusive rental window to the DVD when it is released.—Anne Becker

Verizon to ABC: Let's Get 'Lost'

ABC is expected to announce soon a deal to bring about 20 separately produced original mini-episodes of Lost to a mobile-phone provider, presumed to be Verizon's VCast service, early next year.

The ancillary “mobisodes,” each several minutes long, would be produced by Buena Vista Home Entertainment and later packaged as part of a second-season DVD release, industry insiders say.

The deal would follow 20th Century Fox Television's earlier entry into mobisodes with 24.

ABC recently announced a deal with Apple's iTunes to run repurposed episodes of Lost and other series on the download service, but this would be its first original wireless content.

Because of the project's small scope, neither ABC nor series producer Touchstone Television will be involved in the production. It will instead be handled under the auspices of Lost executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse.

The mobisodes will reportedly be titled the “Lost Video Diaries” and introduce two stranded characters that are not currently featured on the prime time version. A tie-in connecting the two could come later, however.

Verizon Wireless is considered the most likely candidate to align with ABC for its VCast pay service, which charges $15 a month, or 99¢ cents per episode.—Jim Benson

Unions: Curb Product Placement

Union leaders last Monday proposed TV standards for product placement. Speaking at a press conference on a day that the Writers Guild of America, West and the WGA, East and the Screen Actors Guild jointly issued a white paper on product integration, WGAW president Patric Verrone outlined a proposed “Code of Conduct.”

While they would like to stop the onrush of product integration in television shows and feature films, the groups said a more realistic solution would be full disclosure at the beginning of a show listing the companies advertising.

The guilds also threatened to go to the FCC if negotiations could not be opened on the subject, but said that was a “last resort.” They would likely have a willing ear in Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who has made stumping for product-placement disclosure one of the priorities of his second term at the commission.

The Code of Conduct comprises four points: the visual and aural disclosure of product-integration deals at the beginning of each program, limiting integration in children's programming, including writers in decision-making, and extending the guidelines to cable TV.

Verrone said the organization is not happy that writers are being put in a position to have to write “advertising copy” within entertainment programming. He says: “We have to draw the line somewhere.”—Ben Grossman

Bleier Supports TV-Study Center

Longtime media executive Edward Bleier will underwrite a study of popular television with a substantial financial gift to Center for the Study of Popular Television at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

The money will support the work of Robert Thompson, a trustee professor of television and popular culture and the director of the center, which will be renamed the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.

Bleier, an SU alumnus (1951), has been a key executive in implementing changes in the media landscape, principally at Time Warner/Warner Bros. and ABC-TV. From 1969 at 2004, while at Warner Bros., Bleier was a key player in Warner Communications' development of cable systems, cable networks, home video and sports, and its 1990 merger with Time Inc.

Says Bleier, “The content of American media is so pervasive—for good or ill—it must be seriously taught and examined.”—Staff

'Access' Names Senior Producer

Paramount Domestic Television has tapped Access Hollywood senior producer Kathy Samuels as senior VP, programming, reporting to Terry Wood, president of creative affairs and development for Viacom's two first-run production units at King World and Paramount.

In the newly created position, Samuels will work closely with Wood in overseeing development and production of new programming for the division, as well as Entertainment Tonight, The Insider, Dr. Phil and all brand extensions of the properties (including ET on MTV, ET UK, ET Canada and prime time CBS specials for Dr. Phil and ET).—J.B.

Bochco, Cherry, Mitchell To Receive Legacy Awards

Producers Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue) and Marc Cherry (Desperate Housewives) and PBS President/CEO Pat Mitchell have been named to receive the third annual National Association of Television Program ExecutivesBrandon Tartikoff Legacy Awards.

The awards are given for “extraordinary passion, leadership, independence and vision in the process of creating television programming,” characteristics embodied by the award's namesake, the legendary NBC program chief who took the network from worst to first in the 1980s, helped by several of Bochco shows. Tartikoff left NBC in 1991 and died of Hodgkin's disease in 1997.

The awards, to be presented at NATPE's annual conference in Las Vegas Jan. 23, are co-sponsored by B&C, Multichannel News, Variety and NBC Universal.—J.E.

FCC's Abernathy To Depart Dec. 9

FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy has sent her resignation to President George W. Bush, saying she will leave Dec. 9, 2005.

The White House has expressed its intention to nominate Democrat Michael Copps to a second term and Tennessee regulatory utility commissioner Deborah Tate to the vacant Republican seat of former Chairman Michael Powell.

But there has been no nominee for Abernathy's seat, which she must give up by the end of this legislative session.

It is unlikely a new commissioner will be installed by the end of the year, say people familiar with the FCC.—J.E.

McGinnis Exits CBS News

Marcy McGinnis, the head of newsgathering at CBS News, is leaving Nov. 18 to make room for new CBS News President Sean McManus to bring in his own number-two executive.

In a note to staffers, McGinnis said that it was “time for a changing of the guard at CBS News” and that McManus had told her he wanted to appoint his own deputy, “a decision I understand,” she said.

With her departure, CBS News has completely turned over its top executive ranks. Former News President Andrew Heyward recently departed, and former prime time news chief Betsy West was asked to resign after the investigation into the ill-fated 60 Minutes report on President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard.

McGinnis has been at CBS News for 35 years, starting as a secretary and rising to head the network's London bureau.—Allison Romano


Alan Frank is president/CEO of the Post-Newsweek television station group. A story in the Nov. 14 issue incorrectly identified his company.

The cover of the same issue should have carried the following photo credit: Index Stock Imagery/NewsCom, Family.