Broadcasters to McCain: Forget DTV deadline

After a lot of prodding from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), broadcasters admitted on Thursday that they aren't likely to give back their analog channels by the end of 2006.

"I think 2006 is going to be a very difficult deadline to meet," said Ben Tucker, executive vice president of Fisher Broadcasting and president of the NAB Television Board. At first Tucker told McCain that broadcasters are "on track" to convert to digital by May 2002, the date by which the FCC requires all commercial broadcasters to be broadcasting in digital, but he later changed his tune. "Small market broadcasters are going to run into hardships, there's no question about it," Tucker said.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman McCain, who routinely complains that broadcasters have received $70 billion of spectrum for free, found a comrade-in-arms on the committee with new member Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.). Fitzgerald said the government's loan of the digital spectrum to broadcasters was one of the "corporate welfare giveways I wanted to go to Washington to fight." Fitzgerald joined McCain in hammering broadcasters on when they would give back the analog spectrum and also asked whether they would be willing to pay fees to stay on the analog spectrum past 2002. Tucker ultimately said "no," with McCain chiming in: "What you would probably do is come to the Congress and get an extension and that's what you are planning on doing."

For their part, both Tucker and Paxson Communications President Jeff Sagansky told the committee that without requiring cable operators to carry all their channels-digital and analog, one full channel or six multiplexed-they have no incentive to convert to digital. "Undoubtedly, the most important issue for PAX-TV in terms of a successful DTV transition is cable and satellite carriage of all 6 Mhz of our stations' digital signals," Sagansky said.

Unsurprisingly, cable's representative, Insight Communications President Michael Willner, balked at that suggestion. "Whether they convert to digital doesn't affect me at all except in the fact that they keep trying to confiscate my property," Willner told Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who was more sympathetic to broadcasters' difficulties. "I think there is a need for an extension of deadlines in existing law," Stevens said.
- Paige Albiniak