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Dingell Questions FCC Ability To Oversee DTV Transition

All the people in the media industry are incapable of guessing how information will ultimately move in the new digital age, House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) told a group of broadcasters Tuesday, but it will be fast and it will have enormous consequences for all media, he suggested.

Speaking to a group of 500-plus broadcast executives assembled for the NAB's annual legislative meet-and-greet in Washington, the Congressman took told broadcasters they had a tough competitive road and took aim at the FCC and Bush administration over the DTV-to-analog converter box program, which is meant to insure millions of analog-only sets still work after the DTV transition.

Dingell said that the "if you build it they will come" model only works in the movies, saying the last time he checked he hadn't recorded anything on his Betamax machine, referring to the video recorder standard done in by VHS. Technology has to be user-friendly and easily embraced," he said, and consumers are a "fickle bunch," he added, as preamble to his emphasis on the importance of a smooth DTV transition.

Dingell warned his audience that consumers would probably be annoyed to pay $50 to keep a $100 TV set working,"referring to the converter box analog sets will need to use after the transition to digital is complete, now targeted for Feb. 17, 2009. Dingell suggested that date might not be realistic, or at least not "sufficiently far" in the future "to avoid significant ire from the American public."

Dingell said one of the "inconvenient truths" of the DTV transition is that over a year after the transition bill was passed, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association still has not released the details of its converter box subsidy plan--the Office Of Management and Budget is currently vetting those rules, which it must do before they are released. He said his committee would keep close tabs on both NTIA and the FCC, saying the Bush administration seemed to view the converter program as "little more than an unwelcome homework assignment" that showed "shocking ignorance" of the congressional debate.

Dingell said he had "serious concerns" with the FCC's "desire and ability to handle the overall transition," pointing out that he had had his differences with "countless" FCC chairmen. "The current FCC is no exception."

If the converter box program does not proceed smoothly, he warned, "a day of reckoning will come and people will be voted off the island," though he named no names. Earlier in the day, a House staffer had pointed out that while the FCC chairman and President probably would not still be in their posts come February 2007, his bosses would still probably be around, another reasons they were particularly interested in a smooth and consumer-friendly transition.

Dingell said that the FCC had "over the years had problems following the authority given them by Congress." and said the commission and NTIA will face a "rigorous period of congressional oversight."

Dingell said the FCC had ignored the impact of the transition on public interest obligations, but that his committee would not. He called broadcasters uniquely valuable, but also uniquely obligated to public service. "This privilege should not be taken for granted," he said.

Dingell said he had always had a good working relationship with broadcasters, then gave a shout-out to NAB leadership "of the caliber" of former National Association of Broadcasters Presidents Vince Wasilewski and Eddie Fritts.

But he also said a letter to House members sent out under current President David Rehr was "still a mystery to me." He was referring to a "key vote" letter NAB had sent last year asking legislators to support requiring consumers to apply to the government for their DTV converter box subsidy coupons and that capped the consumer awareness campaign at only $5 million. He called the letter "unusual." Back when the letter was sent, it was said to have ruffled a number of Democratic feathers.

Some attendees noted that Rehr was not included in the shout-out for NAB leaders, but a spokesperson for Dingell called it an "oversight."

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.