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2007 DTV Date Has Some Backers, But...

The heads of some major broadcasting groups said Wednesday they are ready for the switch to digital, with one even saying she thought moving the hard date for return of analog spectrum from 2009 to 2007 might be a good idea.

Broadcasters have committed to a hard date of 2009, but, post-Katrina, there has been a push by Sen. John McCain and others to move up the date so more spectrum can be freed for emergency first-responders.

The broadcasters' caveat, however, was that they didn't think viewers, or government, for that matter, were ready for that date, and that the government would have to take a comprehensive approach to the switch if those viewers were to be well-served by the transition.

Speaking on a panel at the Association for Maximum Service Television conference in Washington, Elizabeth Murphy Brown, president of Morgan Murphy Stations, said she thought most stations could handle a 2007 date, adding that in some ways it might be easier since it would force the industry and government to face issues like a subsidy for digital-to-analog tuners and cable downconversion of the DTV signal.

The latter would be devastating, she said, completely negating their efforts and investment in digital.

Broadcasters are concerned that the DTV transition bill coming out of the Senate will deal only with a hard date, and push off the political flash points of multicast must-carry and downcoversion of DTV signals, among others, to sometime next year.

Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Ted Stevens, who is motormanning that bill, has said there will have to be two bills, one dealing with the money-related issue of setting a hard date and getting the spectrum back for auction, and another to deal with related issues. Essentially his hand was forced by a budget committee deadline of Oct. 19 for bills that will bring money to the treasury, and a Senate rule that prevents tacking non-budget related legislation on those bills.

Stevens, addressing the conference, said there was as yet no bill, or agreement on the elements of that bill, but he continued to advocate a 2009 hard date.

David Barrett, president of Hearst-Argyle Television, agreed with Burns that "most stations are ready to go." In fact, he said it might make sense post-Katrina to flash-cut to digital in New Orleans on WDSU rather than having to rebuild both digital and analog facilites. It would save him millions, he said, but would likely not serve his primarily analog viewers.

Barrett said he was offended by suggestions that the horrors of the Louisiana Superdome were somehow the result of broadcasters sitting on spectrum. The broadcasters were in agreement that too much blame was being laid on them, with not enough attention paid to their efforts before, during and after the crisis.

Barrett also emphasized that the government should not put off dealing with the issues of multicasting, downconversion, or subsidies for digital-to-analog converters.

CBS Executive VP Martin Franks pointed out that Congress initially established a marketplace approach to the return or spectrum. If it wants to change that to a government-engineered model, he said, it has to deal with the implications of that change.

If it only does a hard date and punts on those other issues for a year, Franks said, "does anyone think that hard date will stick? I don't."