Wakeup call

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Sen. John McCain went after broadcasters again a couple of weeks ago, demanding free time for political ads as part of his quixotic campaign to reduce the influence of money in Washington. But we're used to it: McCain has made broadcaster-bashing a regular part of his straight-talk shtick.

What we are not used to is House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin's scolding broadcasters. Last week, he warned them that Congress might have to impose a "hard deadline" of 2006 for completing the transition to digital and giving up their analog channels. Right now, broadcasters can hang on to both their analog and digital channels until 2006 or until 85% of American can receive the latter. That 85% clause, as Tauzin and other lawmakers are now well aware, places the analog giveback not in 2006 but in.you pick it.

We are not too alarmed, however, knowing that Tauzin is more bark than bite. But it wouldn't hurt broadcasters to show him some respect by getting a little more serious about DTV. It's time for ABC, NBC and Fox to match CBS'output of HDTV programming and all broadcasters to support the planned broadcast-technology center to work out the kinks in the 8-VSB transmission standard and tackle other DTV problems. TV-set manufacturers could also help by sponsoring more HDTV programming and dropping their opposition to legislation requiring them to build sets with DTV tuners. After all, the manufacturers have the most to gain in the shift the digital. We're talking hundreds of million of new TVs.

Such initiatives, we suspect, would go a long way toward placating Tauzin and other lawmakers who are just catching up to the fact that the DTV/HDTV rollout is not going as smoothly as they expected it would when they granted broadcasters the digital channels in 1996.

Listen to Tauzin. Show a little good faith.

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