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DTV shift in D.C.

Capitol Hill appears to be warming to broadcaster pleas for help with the digital-TV transition. If comments Wednesday from a key lawmaker and aides to other influential members of Congress are any indication, that sympathy could translate into legislative mandates on other industries to spur consumer acceptance of the new technology.

"The digital-television transition is my number-one issue," Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) told the Association for Maximum Service Television in Washington. He chairs the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee. "As I talk to my local broadcasters, I know the millions of dollars they have spent to meet the deadline," he said.

Lawmakers have joined the FCC in asking other industry groups to remove several hurdles to consumer demand for digital sets, including the lack of cable-compatible DTV sets, copy-protection standards and cable-carriage agreements for DTV channels. The proliferation of DTV sets without receivers for broadcast signals also alarms station owners.

Lawmakers' attitudes have turned sharply in the past 18 months. During the first hearings on the DTV logjam in July 2000, then House Commerce and Energy Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley (R-Va.) charged that station owners' "cold feet" was the main threat to the digital-TV transition. Now his successor, Billy Tauzin (R-La.), is giving serious consideration to broadcaster proposals long opposed by either the cable or consumer-electronics industries, including mandated digital receivers in all TV sets and cable-compatible TVs.

Upton has not given up hope that industry negotiators can solve the problem without government intervention. But "Fred is feeling increasingly that Congress may have to step in," said Will Norwind, an aide to the Michigan Republican. "Everything is on the table."