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NAB Softens Hard-Date DTV Bill

Successful lobbying by the National Association of Broadcasters greatly watered down Senate legislation aimed at accelerating when TV stations must return their analog signals to the government.

By a 13-9 vote, the Senate Commerce Committee amended Chairman John McCain's plan to reclaim all analog channels by Jan. 1, 2009. Instead, they approved a "hard" deadline only for channels 60 and above, which are partially earmarked for transfer to police, fire and other emergency departments around the country. And even stations in that band might not have to move by that date if they fall under a couple of caveats.

The vote also cast doubt on the political viability of FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s plan to take back analog channels by 2009. McCain's plan essentially mirrored Powell's and the FCC chairman has declared the agency has power to move forward regardless of whether Congress approves his idea. Now that one of the main committees overseeing the FCC is on record with an alternative, Powell may find it difficult to move forward with his idea. "This should send a clear message that the FCC plan is not politically palatable on Capitol Hill," said one industry source.

The NAB-backed alternative, sponsored by former broadcaster and Montana Senator Conrad Burns, called for "date certain" transfer of those channels because spectrum shortages prevent various emergency departments from coordinating communications during local disasters. The problems of "first responders" tragically caught public attention during the 2001 terrorist attacks and reclaiming TV channels as a solution is recommended in the 9/11 Commission's recent report. The turnover date for channels 60 and above would actually be moved up one year to Jan. 1, 2008.

The committee's reworked legislation lets broadcasters keep old analog channels until 85% of their local households can receive DTV service--the same standard that has existed for years. Also, broadcasters on channels 60 and above may seek an exemption from the FCC if there is no "bona fide request" from emergency departments in its market or the move would create "consumer disruption."

Committee Chairman John McCain, sponsor of the original bill, was angered that broadcasters' lobbying convinced his colleagues to soften a hard date for broadcasters, and attacked Burns and co-sponsors Ernest Hollings, Daniel Inouye and Ted Stevens personally for siding with the group. "The National Association of Broadcasters has been up to its old tricks, using their usual water carriers."

There is a downside for some broadcasters, more than 75 stations operate on those four channels, primarily those owned by weaker station groups such as Paxson and Univision. Still, with several on the committee suggesting how disruptive it could for millions of Hispanic viewers to move those stations, they already have fodder for seeking a "consumer disruption" exemption when the time comes.

The Burns plan was supported by the major broadcast networks as well as NAB.