Broadcasters Win Approval of DTV Proposal

Broadcasters have beat back a proposal that would have required them to give up their analog channels and switch entirely to digital transmissions by 2009. Their allies on the Senate Commerce Committe

WASHINGTON, D.C. (The Hollywood Reporter) -- Broadcasters have beat back a proposal that would have required them to give up their analog channels and switch entirely to digital transmissions by 2009. Their allies on the Senate Commerce Committee won approval Sept. 22 for a weaker proposal.

Committee chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was pushing legislation that would have required broadcasters to abandon the analog frequencies by that year, so that many could be turned over to government public-safety operations or sold off for new technological uses.

"The National Assn. of Broadcasters opposes the bill on the grounds that tens of millions of Americans could potentially lose access to local TV stations if the McCain bill becomes law," NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

McCain accused broadcasters of putting financial motivations above the needs of firefighters, police officers and other "first responders" who need the analog frequencies to more effectively coordinate rescue efforts. The commission that examined the 9/11 terrorist attacks concluded that lack of radio spectrum created communication problems among rescue personnel.

But McCain's argument was turned aside as the committee elected to support a proposal by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.

Instead of setting a hard date that requires broadcasters to switch off their analog signals and broadcast only on digital channels, Burns' legislation allows broadcasters to stay on analog "to the extent necessary to avoid consumer disruption." It also allows broadcasters to keep those channels if public safety officials fail to make a "bone fide request" for them in each local market.

The legislation includes an amendment pushed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., that requires the Federal Communications Commission to develop guidelines that would establish a minimum amount of programming that would have to be locally originated, independently produced or concern local elections or public affairs.

In addition, the legislation sets up a $1 billion fund to help poor people pay for set-top boxes or other ways to allow them to view digital TV signals. It also requires TV manufacturers to label products that are not capable of showing the DTV signal.

The vote means that the current timetable, which allows broadcasters to continue transmitting on their analog frequencies until 85% of the TV-watching public can view DTV, remains in effect.

FCC chairman Michael Powell argued that it will take decades to reach the 85% threshold, preventing those frequencies from being used for new services like wireless broadband and making public-safety operations more difficult.

The vote was seen by industry executives and congressional aides as a blow to Powell's attempt to force broadcasters off the analog spectrum by a certain date. Without the support of the committee for a "hard date," it will be more difficult for Powell to win support for his plan.

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