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OnScreen Media Summit: Wiley Predicts Smooth Sailing For DTV Transition

OnScreen Media Summit: Complete Coverage from Broadcasting & Cable and Multichannel News

New York -- Former FCC Chairman and prominent Washington communications attorney Richard Wiley predicted relatively smooth sailing for the digital conversion next February and painted a measured picture for the incoming Democratic-led commission that many believe could be far more regulatory minded and tougher on broadcasters.

Wiley, a Republican who was chairman during the 1970s under the Nixon administration, shares few of the proclivities of some media activists. "I see more regulation, frankly," he said. But he said with the Obama Administration, facing overwhelming economic problems, he may not fight many major communications battles at the start.

Wiley spoke at the First Annual Broadcasting & Cable/Multichannel News On Screen Media Summit in New York City.

He did express alarm over the so-called white spaces issue in which the FCC will give vacant space between used bits of spectrum to unlicensed users. While he said the potential sounds exciting, "I'd have some concerns there are going to be some real problems for stations out there." For the sake of them, he said, "I don't think we want to lose the wonder of the broadcasting industry" to the uncertainty over white space issues. 

The  former chairman, now the managing partner at Wiley Rein in Washington, predicted the digital transition won't be the nightmare some predict, based on the small number of people likely to be affected by next February. And he said, whatever problems there will be, the hassle won't last longer than a few days for older  or more technologically-challenged consumers. But he said, "It's not like we're shutting off their electricity. We're not taking away their food. I think within a week or so we can have this problem solved."

He did warn that Rep Henry Waxman and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, new chairmen of committees with significant influence on media issues, may be tough on the media. Waxman is "going to be a very vigorous chairman, very aggressive," pointing out Waxman's interest in restricting advertising for prescription drugs, advertising to children and product placement. Sen. Rockefeller, he said, will have a lot to say about who may be approved as FCC chairman.  

At every turn, Wiley took the middle ground, hoping also that broadcasters and cable operators can find a compromise on the grace period both want to limit cable retransmission consents around the time of the transition, to prevent even more consumer confusion.

Cable companies want to stop the clock earlier than broadcasters, so that some stations don't use holding back the Super Bowl from a cable operator to extract an agreement. Wiley predicted a compromise date.