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Washington Watch

Barton Takes Aim at DTV-Set Makers

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, has been pressuring broadcasters to go all-digital as soon as possible. Now he aims to make TV manufacturers pitch in, too.

Barton said last week that he and other committee leaders will ask the FCC to accelerate its deadline for requiring nearly all digital TV sets to contain tuners capable of receiving stations' over-the-air digital signals. Currently, DTV sets 13 inches and larger must have the tuners by July 1, 2007. He wants the deadline moved up to “late 2005 or early 2006,” he told the Federal Communications Bar Association.

An accelerated equipment deadline is needed, he said, to ensure that broadcasters are able to switch to digital-only operation by Dec. 31, 2006, as current law envisions.

But, Barton insisted, there won't be enough digital-ready viewers to cut off old analog broadcasts unless consumers are better equipped to receive digital signals than current trends suggest. “Right now, we don't think the [broadcast] industry can meet the Dec. 31, 2006, deadline because the equipment won't be there.”

In 2002, the FCC approved the tuner mandate, which also required 50% of sets 36 inches and larger to include DTV receivers by July 1, 2004, and 100% by July 1, 2005. The digital-tuner mandate was adamantly opposed by the Consumer Electronics Association, which sued to block it, but was upheld by federal appeals judges. CEA subsequently said it favors accelerating the deadline.

TV manufacturers have manufactured many HDTV models without digital tuners, expecting them to be hooked to cable rather than to an over-the-air antenna that allows viewers to get their local broadcasts directly from the stations.

CPB Interim Chief Rejects Complaints

“Baloney.” That is what Ken Ferree, acting president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting called media activists' suggestions that he lacks sufficient commitment to the public interest to run the organization charged with doling federal dollars to noncommercial stations and programmers.

He said he wants to be considered for the permanent post but wouldn't handicap his chances.

On learning of Ferree's interim appointment following the abrupt April 8 resignation of Kathleen Cox, leaders of the Center for Digital Democracy and Common Cause insisted the switch was engineered by Republican board members pushing public broadcasting programming rightward.

Before joining CPB, Ferree served as Media Bureau chief under Republican FCC Chairman Michael Powell. Powell and Ferree voiced skepticism about the activists' demand for new public-interest obligations on commercial broadcasters. But Ferree says he never indicated that broadcasters have no substantive duties to serve the public interest.

He predicted that his critics will end up “agreeing with everything we intend to do” to strengthen public broadcasting.

Tribune Gets Breathing Room on Hartford Sale

Tribune Broadcasting will be able to keep TV station WTXX Hartford, Conn., for at least another two years after the FCC essentially nullified a court order to sell the station.

Last month, a federal district court ordered the sale, arguing that Tribune needed to come into compliance with the federal ban on crossownership of TV stations and local newspapers. Last week's decision indicates that the FCC is willing to issue other crossownership waivers if licensees demonstrate tangible public-interest benefits, at least while it revises its ownership restrictions.

Since 2001, Tribune has been under FCC order to sell either WTXX or the Hartford Courant, which the company acquired when it took over Times-Mirror. Thanks to last week's decision, Tribune has FCC permission to keep the station until 2007, when licenses for WTXX and another Hartford station owned by Tribune, WTIC, must be renewed.

FCC Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein approved the new WTXX waiver even though they fiercely oppose relaxation of media-ownership limits. They went along in this case, because the station probably would go dark if forced to become a stand-alone operation.