Eyeing March/April to begin writing legislation.

Tuesday morning’s (Feb. 24) Senate Commerce Committee was supposed to hash out some of the key issues surrounding the use of a broadcast flag to protect the copyright holders of video and audio content transmitted over the air—but arguments and disagreements from both senators and witnesses on the topic opened the discussion to a lot more than just that narrowly-defined subject.

Ultimately, after hearing testimony from seven witnesses on two panels, Senators Ted Stevens, R., Alaska, and Daniel Inouye, D., Hawaii, agreed that the best way to resolve the many disagreements still dividing the NAB, the Consumer Electronics Association and the RIAA on the proper use of an audio broadcast flag was to set a timetable and to request a progress report every three weeks. Senator Stevens suggested that the timetable could work well with his own hopes to plow through about 14 more hearings on various issues and to begin writing up legislation around March or April.

For broadcasters and the music industry, there was plenty of pointed disagreement between the three men on the second panel of witnesses: RIAA CEO Mitch Bainwol, CEA CEO Gary Shapiro and Susquehanna Radio VP/GM Dan Halyburton, who chairs the NAB’s recently-formed Audio Broadcast Flag Task Force.

In essence, the CEA’s Shaprio accused the RIAA of ignoring the issue of a broadcast flag for the last seven years and showing up late to the negotiations. “What Mr. Bainwol is talking about is stopping legitimate recording of digital content in homes by consumers,” Shapiro said during his testimony. “They want to stop Americans from recording free, over the air radio for use in their homes.”

Bainwol strongly disagreed with that description of the issue and called Shapiro’s view a “fringe perspective.” Bainwol also managed to toss in a barbed comment when he told the committee Shapiro is “charming and compelling but often misleading,” a trait Bainwol dubbed “a dangerous combination.”

Bainwol said the RIAA’s concern is, “being able to replicate a [song] purchase and not having to pay for it” by recording songs in a manner not designed for personal use and through some type of automated system.

Senator Stevens characterized Halyburton’s position as “walking a tightrope between these two.” Halyburton agreed and suggested to Stevens that “if we can keep our approach contained and narrow,” his NAB Task Force might be able to work with the RIAA and the two groups could “go back and fix it ourselves.”

“Do you accept a timetable on this?” asked Stevens. Halyburton said yes, adding that “If so, I think we can get things done.”

Stevens also closed the hearing with a cautionary note of the reality of getting any broadcast flag legislation passed. His point was that one senator, acting alone, can request a “hold” be placed on a bill. “Let me remind you that there were 35 bills that were stopped by holds” last year, said Stevens. “One senator can stop a bill,” he said, urging the hearing room’s audience to reach consensus on their issues if they expected to see a bill turned into law. “I do hope we can find an agreement,” Stevens added, but he also said he felt finding a resolution will be “totally problematic, I’m afraid.”