In an attempt to get the transition to digital TV out of low gear, broadcasters told a Senate panel July 12 that they are not fighting congressional attempts to set a "hard date" for the switch.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (The Hollywood Reporter) -- In an attempt to get the transition to digital TV out of low gear, broadcasters told a Senate panel July 12 that they are not fighting congressional attempts to set a "hard date" for the switch.

While National Assn. of Broadcasters president/CEO Edward Fritts told the Senate Commerce Committee that the industry is willing to accept a 2009 date for the switch, it needs lawmakers to ensure that cable companies will carry all of a broadcaster's TV signal in their undegraded form.

Digital TV transmissions allow a broadcaster to air an HDTV signal or several standard-definition signals. The NAB is pushing lawmakers to expand the 1992 law that requires cable operators to carry local signals to include all the different streams a broadcaster airs.

"In dozens of markets, stations use multicasting to supply network programming that previously was not there," Fritts told the Senate Commerce Committee. "For example, CBS Tallahassee affiliate WCTV uses multicasting to also supply UPN network programming to viewers. Multicasting also means greater opportunities to serve diverse demographics. Ninety stations nationwide are multicasting foreign-language programming. Most important -- from the consumers' standpoint -- these services are free. Regrettably, in many cases, cable operators refuse to provide these services to their subscribers. If cable monopolies strip these free services from broadcasters' signals, it will be difficult for stations to fully develop multicasting."

Not surprisingly, cable operators oppose a multicast, must-carry law. They argue that forcing them to carry multiplexed signals of all broadcasters in all markets would force other programming and other services out of the marketplace.

"We have one pipe, upgraded with fiber-optic technology, with very robust capacity, but it is not unlimited," National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. president/CEO Kyle McSlarrow said. "By law, we already have to offer public access and other public, educational and governmental video programming. We also have to offer carriage to every broadcaster who chooses must-carry. We offer increasing numbers of digital and high-definition programming, and that one cable connection to the home allows us to offer not just linear channels of video, we plan to offer video-on-demand, including high-definition video on-demand."

American Cable Assn. vice chairman Patrick Knorr argues that it would be unfair to force cable operators to carry a national weather channel or a home shopping network. The cable industry contends that compelling or locally produced programming would probably get on the cable system because operators want that programming.

"What we can't afford to do is carry a national weather feed that is completely redundant," Knorr said.

In an effort to head off cable operators' arguments, Fritts said broadcasters are willing to work out "quantifiable" public-interest requirements that would ensure programming is diverse and local.

But McSlarrow told lawmakers that broadcasters' push to require cable operators to pass through the signal undegraded made little sense. Cable operators want to convert the digital signal at their head-end facility to an analog signal so subscribers who don't pay for digital cable can get the signal. Broadcasters want the signal down converted for TVs that aren't digitally capable at the individual TV.

"This committee can discharge its responsibilities and advance public safety without wading into this morass," McSlarrow said. Nothing the broadcasters have proposed has the slightest bearing on how you can best ensure the return of the spectrum and how you can do so with a minimum of inconvenience to consumers."

But that didn't sit well with committee chairman Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

"I'm not comfortable with the answers I got today," he said when asked about cable's position. "If we mandate the conversion to digital, it doesn't make sense to say OK, but if you're on a cable system, we're going to downgrade it to analog."

Stevens told reporters he had yet to write legislation but said he wanted to set a hard date in 2009. He said he also wanted to set a date that would end the sales of analog TV sets in the U.S.

"I do think we need a hard date to say: No more analog sets sold in this country," he said. "That's a date we have to do, and better sooner than later."

Broadcasters are required to stop analog transmissions at the end of 2006 or when 85% of the U.S. TV-viewing audience receives a digital signal, whichever comes later. The 85% number has long been considered an unreachable goal. Once the switch is made, the frequencies used for analog TV broadcasts will be returned to the government. Some of those will be auctioned off, and some will be used for emergency and law enforcement efforts.

"We must have this bill; we've got to move broadcasters off these frequencies so we can use it for first responders and law enforcement," Stevens said.