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Channel Grab

During the Iowa Caucuses, Howard Dean wasn't the only one living a nightmare. As the one-time Democratic frontrunner's presidential hopes flamed out on Jan. 19, Dave Busiek, news director of KCCI-TV Des Moines, was having a bad time, too. His news crews, dispatched to the five candidates' headquarters and to the local party office, had to fight to get reports on the air. The problem was as much technical as journalistic.

That's because KCCI and five other TV stations in Des Moines share special channels reserved for news crews that need to beam on-the-scene live reports back to their stations.

Although it's little known by the public, each U.S. market has seven of these special channels—dubbed electronic newsgathering (ENG) channels.

And control of those channels is now threatened by the FCC, which wants to dole some of them out to satellite communications companies—in part to reduce the gaping federal deficit, in part to create more frequencies for fire and police departments in the wake of 9/11. It sounds altruistic, but broadcasters say the so-called "spectrum grab" is unfair.

"It's already a crunch," Busiek says. "Jamming us into tighter space is not a good idea."

On big news days, those seven channels are as necessary in Des Moines as in New York City. Busiek, for example, wanted to dedicate multiple newsgathering channels to his caucus-night coverage but was forced to let rivals in, too.

Similarly, on Feb. 19, WTTG-TV Toledo's Brian Trauring had to vie not only with other local stations but with crews from Detroit when a crane collapsed on a highway construction project, killing four workers and tying up traffic for miles.

The looming threat to newsgathering operations is part of a trend broadcasters say could damage TV service from coast to coast. Pressured to reclaim and sell rights to old analog channels, the FCC is considering a plan to accelerate the DTV transition that would have the side effect of denying broadcasters the chance to reach cable audiences with new digital services.

As with the takeback of newsgathering channels, broadcasters fear the government is interested in reclaiming channels now used for TV and turning them over for other business. Broadcasters are sympathetic, to a point; they worry that their needs are being shortchanged.

"This a spectrum-reclamation plan," says Eddie Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters. "Our concern is, [FCC] Chairman [Michael] Powell may have abandoned the digital transition. We thought we were going from analog to digital. This would be going from digital to analog."

Recognizing that broadcasters are lobbying for a backlash against Powell, Washington think-tank analysts Norman Ornstein and Thomas Hazlett last week weighed in, favoring his idea for DTV.

On Capitol Hill, some have asked the FCC to slow down before grabbing the TV channels. "I strongly urge you to reconsider," Conrad Burns, chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee, told Powell last week. A handful of other lawmakers also had a negative reaction to that plan.

Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton and Commerce Committee ranking Democrat John Dingell also worry that the newsgathering takeback would hurt smaller-market stations.

That's because the satellite companies getting those channels are supposed to reimburse stations for the new digital equipment needed to offset the effects of the channel squeeze. In markets outside the top 30, though, negotiations can drag on for 10 years. Meanwhile, stations in those markets, like Des Moines and Toledo, will have a tougher juggling act.

The FCC staff isn't commenting on plans for the newsgathering channels because they are under appeal. But Powell last week told broadcasters to take it easy when it comes to passing judgment on his still-developing DTV strategy.

Despite their complaints, broadcasters will get important benefits, he said after speaking to a conference on high-definition TV last week. Although he wouldn't go into specifics, Powell said broadcasters would have "options" for ensuring that HD and other digital services get wide consumer distribution. Additionally, he said, broadcasters would benefit from no longer paying electric costs for powering both an analog and digital channel and from the simple certainty of knowing when the transition to DTV will end.

That would be great, they counter, as long they don't have to fight for channel space.