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DTV Date: April 7, 2009

Broadcasters will have to pull the plug on analog transmissions on April 7, 2009, according to a Senate Commerce Committee draft of a DTV "hard-date” bill circulated among staffers late last week.

As expected, the bare-bones bill does not deal with mandatory cable carriage of broadcasters’ multicast DTV signals, or with any new public-interest obligations or cable conversion of the DTV signal, which are expected to be addressed in a separate bill.

The date is a compromise between the Jan. 1, 2009, date that has been floated for months and a midsummer date favored by those who wanted to push it past the bowl games and the May sweeps viewing period into the lower-viewing summer months.

The hard date bill would require that some of the money collected from auctions of the reclaimed analog spectrum be put into a new Digital Transition and Public Safety Fund, while still meeting its $4.8 billion commitment to the general Treasury fund.

The Digital Transition Fund would 1) help pay for digital-to-analog converter boxes; 2) convert low-power TV stations and TV translators (an important issue with Commerce Committee Chairman Sen.Ted Stevens); 3) fund new emergency communications systems (some of the spectrum will be handed over to first responders); 4) help pay for an enhanced 911 system; and 5) provide money for hurricane assistance in coastal states.

The last provision was a way of addressing the pressure to use the auction proceeds to help pay for the hundreds of billions promised for Katrina relief.

The provision for funding translator conversion is near and dear to Stevens since rural areas—like Alaska—rely on translators to relay TV signals to remote viewers.

The Senate’s "hard date" bill must be reconciled with a House version expected to be marked up by Oct. 28.

The National Cable Television Association responded to the bill in a statement: "We support the priority placed on achieving a hard date by which to complete the transition to digital TV. We're also pleased that the staff has chosen to refrain from including mandatory multicasting which would injure consumers and threaten diversity in programming choices.  We're looking forward to working further with Congress as these issues unfold."

"Senator Stevens and Senator [Daniel] Inouye [Commerce co-chairman] have taken a critical and necessary step to expedite our nation's transition to digital television (DTV) in an effective and pro-consumer manner," said Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro. "CEA has long supported a hard cut-off date for analog broadcasts. A hard date provides certainty to manufacturers, retailers, consumers and all others with a stake in the transition. "

NAB was still reviewing the bill at press time.