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Watchdogs Pitch DTV Obligations

Media watchdogs are barking about the pending DTV transition bills in the House and Senate.

In a letter to House and Senate Commerce Committee leaders Thursday, Common Cause, Media Access Project, the Campaign Legal Center, among others, pushed the legislators to require "meaningful public interest obligations" if they grant broadcasters multicasting must-carry.

The groups recommend three hours per week--mirroring stations' educational kids TV requirements--of civic or electoral programing on "[their] most-watched channel. It also says that six weeks before any election, some minimum number of hours such programming airing "when most adult viewers were watching," which would translate to prime time.

As the FCC has with educational/informational programming, the groups also want it to come up with a definition of what would qualify as civic and electoral programming.

The House and Senate are currently trying to hammer out bills that will set a hard date for the return of analog spectrum--probably mid-2009. That bill is also expected to contain: 1) a subsidy for converter boxes to make sure analog sets don't become useless after that date, and, if broadcasters have anything to do about it, 2) a requirement that cable carrry its multicast signals as well as primary digital channel.The latter two issues have helped hold  up a bill that House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton wanted to get done months ago. Also expected are labeling requirements for TV's, so consumers know how long their set will be usable without some kind of converter, and what kind of programming, digital, HDTV it can receive.Sources familiar with the negotiations on the bills say that one proposal would give broadcasters mandatory cable carriage of one or two multicast signals, with some public interest obligations tied to that carriage.

Some broadcasters have expressed their willingness to additional obligations if it will get them the carriage.

There is an Oct. 26 deadline for both committees to submit the bill to their respective budget committees, but it is not clear when the bills will be ready to mark up.