Broadcasters Push DTV-Decision Delay

Opponents of the Federal Communications Commission's so-called Ferree plan for speeding the digital transition have gotten organized and are taking their case to the Hill.

The National Association of Broadcasters, ABC and CBS affiliate groups, minority and rural representatives and some broadcast unions have formed the Coalition for a Smart Digital TV Transition. Their goal: to keep the FCC from "rushing" a decision on the digital-TV transition. The groups plan to officially announce the coalition's formation Tuesday.

"The Coalition is united in asking the FCC not to act in December 2004, before the American public can weigh in on its plan," the group told a gathering of key Hill staffers Monday.
Broadcasters have pitched an alternative plan that would require cable to insure its subscribers can get a digital picture if broadcasters are delivering a digital signal, and have also been pushing for guaranteed carriage of not only their replicated analog signal, but any other free multicast service--data, news, weather--they can fit into their digital channel allotment.

"While the FCC looks to potentially force adoption of a complicated and unworkable digital transition plan, most Americans still don’t understand what digital television is, let alone that they’ll have to buy a new TV to continue watching their local news programs," the coalition asserts. Technically, they would only have to buy a converter box to continue receiving a signal with their old sets, but it would be analog, not digital.

Some members of Congress have advocated setting aside money from spectrum auctions to subsidize those boxes, while the administration has instead argued for a tax on spectrum "squatters" after 2006 to help fund the effort.

But neither is set in stone and the coalition wants there to be a funding mechanism in place before any plan is approved. Manny Mirabal, Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership, says that minority populations will be particularly hard hit, given that they tend to have more secondary sets, watch more TV, have less money to pay for new technology and less access to alternate delivery systems like cable and satellite.
"We're not into delay for delay's sake," he says, but many issues need to be resolved first.
The FCC's current plan, named after Media Bureau Chief Ken Feree, would allow digital signals converted to analog by cable systems to count as digital, which broadcasters argue deprives viewers of the great pictures and interactivity that are DTV's biggest selling points. That definition of digital would allow analog spectrum to be returned to the FCC by 2009. Without it, says Powell, the transition could take decades.

The FCC is concerned with speeding the return of analog spectrum for other uses, including emergency communications.

Scheduled to make their case at a noon meeting Monday on the Hill were Jon Blake, General Counsel, NBC and CBS Affiliate Groups; Quinton Robinson, The Alliance for Rural Television; Dan Mahoney, National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians-Communications/Workers of America; John Orlando, Executive Vice President, Government Relations, National Association of Broadcasters; and Manny Mirabal, Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.