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DTV picture far from clear

Silence and blank stares greeted Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) last week when he asked a panel of TV-industry experts for suggestions on how to speed the digital-TV transition without either condemning hundreds of millions of analog sets and accessories to the junk pile or blowing off movie studios' demand for strong anti-copying safeguards.

"The two alternatives are awful," the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman said during a hearing on DTV last week. "If we don't get the content, it all falls apart, or we take the drastic step of setting a date certain when analog input ends."

Tauzin's desperation for a "third way" that would allow Congress to accelerate the switch to digital TV without sparking a voter revolt demonstrates the trouble he faces making good on a pledge to quickly pass legislation removing all the roadblocks to DTV.

A more likely scenario, some Washington sources predict, is a less ambitious bill limited to technical disputes between the industries, such as standards for "plug-and-play" sets that work without cable-provided converter boxes and without cable's right to lease channel-surfing equipment with built-in security controls. Left for later would be the cutoff date for analog TV and other provisions that create high costs for consumers.

Regardless of the scope of the bill, however, no legislation is expected to pass until well into 2003.

Tauzin two weeks ago drafted model legislation aimed at provoking discussion about DTV's problems, including many that would hit viewers in the wallet. To prevent unlawful copying of digital programs, one provision forbids manufacture of sets and accessories with analog outputs after July 1, 2005. Without the measure, studios and other content providers say they won't allow broadcasts of the best digital programs.

Plugging the "analog hole" could cause consumers severe pain, however. Consumers Union's Gene Kimmelman predicted households could spend upwards of $1,000 if forced to replace or upgrade with all the sets in their homes plus VCRs, DVDs and even personal computers. He said content providers should instead live with the risk of some piracy.

NBC Chairman Robert Wright, however, countered that it is unfair to saddle content makers with all the costs of technological progress. "That's a very big bill," he said.

The obsolescence of nearly 300 million sets and other appliances, the cost of new digital equipment, and diminished rights for home recording are the core conflicts likely to keep broad DTV legislation jammed up in the Energy and Commerce Committee for much of next year.

For example, some lawmakers backed the draft's strict Jan. 31, 2006, cutoff of analog-TV signals as necessary to reclaim the analog channels for public-safety and homeland-security uses.

Rep. Jane Harmon (D-Calif.) voiced similar sentiments: "We cannot ignore the communications needs of public-safety officers any longer."

Others, however, questioned Harmon's rationale.

"I am not convinced that expedited return of the spectrum should be the chief goal," said Rep. John Dingell, the Commerce Committee's ranking Democrat and co-author of the draft legislation. "Congress has the singular responsibility of ensuring no consumer is disenfranchised."

Regarding mandated cable carriage of broadcasters' multicast digital channels, Tauzin has struggled but appears to favor giving broadcasters expanded rights so consumers get something extra for their digital-equipment dollar.

But Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said he could not justify carriage requirements without "quantifiable" commitments for children's programming, local news, foreign-language shows and service to schools. Neither Wright nor NAB TV Board Chairman Michael Fiorile backed such obligations.