Smut, Sats, DTV Unresolved - Broadcasting & Cable

Smut, Sats, DTV Unresolved

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Members of Congress have fled Washington to campaign at home for the Nov. 2 elections, leaving behind three major media issues that must be wrapped up when lawmakers return, either for a lame-duck session soon after the balloting is over or in the 2005 Congress.

 The House and Senate are furthest apart and are likely to face the toughest battle over plans to reclaim broadcasters' analog spectrum.
The House, led by Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, last week passed on voice vote a non-binding “sense” of the House calling on the government to reclaim all TV stations’ analog channels by the end of 2006. Barton’s committee had not voted on TV reclamation legislation previously and the language passed by the House would not have the force of law.
The measure is much tougher on the industry than a DTV conversion measure contained in the Senate anti-terrorism bill, which would reclaim only chs. 62 and higher by the end of 2007.
n The Senate’s version closely resembles legislation passed by the Senate Commerce Committee and is intended to go into effect as law. Barton rallied House colleagues to pass the non-binding language in order to have the House position on paper when the two sides of Capitol Hill begin negotiating a final version of the anti-terrorism bill next month.
Barton’s hope is that the non-binding language will give House negotiators enough muscle to toughen the language in the anti-terrorism bill to make broadcasters return more of their analog channels quicker. If Congress takes no action on reclaiming analog channels, stations won’t be required to return the frequencies until 85% of TV households in their markets are equipped to receive DTV signals, a process that could add years or even decades to the transition.
n New anti-indecency restrictions on broadcasters will be up for debate as well. After blocking a Senate version last week, North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan is on board with a plan to boost FCC fines to a $500,000 maximum per incident, up from $27,500 today. Multiple violations in a 24-hour period would be capped at $3 million. The increased fines would be applied to performers as well as stations.
To prevent the FCC from dawdling, the bill would require the FCC to propose a fine or clear the station within nine months of a complaint. Fines must be made final after a second nine months. The House passed indecency legislation mirroring the Senate bill, which is sponsored by Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. The near agreement of the two version increases likelihood that Congress will pass indecency legislation before final adjournment late this year.
n Finally, the House has passed legislation extending the satellite TV providers’ right to import broadcast network programming to households that can’t receive an acceptable analog version from their local affiliates. The right expires Dec. 31.
The House rejected DBS providers’ bid for right to import digital network programming too and added ordered DBS companies to phase out the practice of requiring some viewers to install a second dish to receive all the local channels in their market.
The Senate failed to pass a companion version. When Congress reconvenes, Senators have the option of voting on the House version, crafting their own version or simply extending the right to import analog channels for one year. Given the likelihood of a continued lobbying battle over importing digital channels, the Senate is expected to insist on a simple one-year extension.

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