Senate Preps Telecom Rewrite

Video-franchise reform, network neutrality are sure to be in initial bill
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The Senate is preparing a telecommunications- reform bill that could dramatically reshape the TV business. Staffers were busy working on draft language over the Easter break, according to a Senate Commerce Committee source. Markup is expected in the next two or three weeks.

Considered certain to be in the bill is video-franchising reform, the key provision of the narrower version the House Commerce Committee overwhelmingly passed last week. Also expected to be in the Senate bill is network neutrality, or preventing telcos from discriminating against Internet content providers, although the language is not likely to be as strong as some activists would like.

Other provisions likely to be included: municipal broadband (which is also in the House version), universal service, and allowing unlicensed wireless devices to use broadcast spectrum.

Content protection, DTV

“Possibles” are a broadcast-flag digital-content-protection scheme, protection of kids from Internet content, and DTV- related items that had to be stripped from DTV–hard-date legislation that passed earlier in the year, such as cable's downconversion of a digital signal and the outlines of a consumer-education campaign on the Feb. 17, 2009, switch to a digital-TV transmission standard.

Multicasting must-carry is unlikely. Even National Broadcasters Association President David Rehr has conceded the votes aren't there.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) has promised that a telecom bill will pass this session, challenging reporters to bet against him. At least one high-placed cable lobbyist says he would have taken that bet.

One item that definitely will not be part of the Senate telecom bill, as omnibus as it is, is increased FCC fines for broadcast indecency.

A Push For Passage

According to Aaron Saunders, press secretary to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the committee has seen evidence of an organized campaign by fans of the bill pushing for passage. But Stevens has no plans to bring up the bill in committee until industry efforts at self-regulation have been given a chance to work, including consumer-education campaigns and cable efforts to create family-friendly programming tiers.

Stevens is concerned about addressing the entire indecency problem, which he believes includes cable and satellite, says Saunders, but not until self-regulation is given a chance.

That could be the reason groups like the Christian Coalition are calling on Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to bring the House version of a bill raising indecency fines straight to the Senate floor. That would bypass Commerce and ensure that there were no differences between House and Senate versions of the bill that could further delay it in the conference committee.

The House version, which would raise FCC indecency fines from a maximum $32,500 per incident to $500,000 passed overwhelmingly last year.

Frist is said to be waiting for the Commerce Committee to act before doing anything on the House version, It is on the calendar, which he controls, however, so it could be brought up for a Senate floor vote at any time.

Martin for The Defense

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin continues to defend the agency's proposed fines and indecency findings against TV stations for profanity and sexual situations.

The FCC issued the findings last month ostensibly to help give broadcasters guidance, but many, including NAB President David Rehr, found them to be of little help.

The proposals to fine stations more than $3 million for sexual content and profanity have drawn howls from some broadcasters—for both the financial pain and the mixed messages. They were left, they say, without clear guidance on how they can air edgy shows without breaking laws. For example, blurring naughty bits is not assurance against an indecency finding, the FCC said. The major networks and their affiliate groups are fighting the crackdown on profanity in court and at the FCC.

Speaking at the annual NAB convention last week, Martin noted that some of the violations cited in the recent order involved the Supreme Court's famous “Seven Dirty Words” decision, based on a George Carlin routine aired on a California radio station.

Rehr, in his inaugural address as president of NAB, defended the First Amendment but also said broadcasters would have “no objection to playing by the decency rules” if Congress and the FCC would just make them clear.

Rehr said the NAB's focus will be on parental control, however: “When it comes to the issue of indecency, the NAB is going to play a leading role to maximize one of America's most fundamental axioms: the need for personal responsibility. We will empower people to make good choices based upon their own tastes and values.”

E-mail comments to jeggerton@reedbusiness.com

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