Tauzin DTV plan alarms broadcasters

Sep 23, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Can Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., really be serious?
That’s the question shell-shocked broadcast industry lobbyists were asking themselves last week after the lawmaker released legislation that would require television stations to convert to digital TV transmission by the end of 2006.
Existing law permits broadcasters to keep both their analog and DTV channels until at least 85 percent of the viewers in their communities are able to receive digital transmissions-a threshold that many industry observers predict won’t be reached for a dozen years or more.
But under Rep. Tauzin’s new plan, the 85 percent loophole would be sewn shut.
“Television broadcasters would be required to cease analog television service [and operate in digital] by December 31, 2006,” the paper accompanying the congressman’s draft bill said.
Broadcasters warned that the provision would seriously slash their audiences and force consumers to scrap or make billions of dollars worth of upgrades for the estimated 250 million TVs currently in homes. It would also render obsolete many of the millions of VCRs in use.
“It would hurt us, clearly,” said Greg Schmidt, VP of new development and general counsel at LIN Television.
“The only people who can be rejoicing at this are the foreign-based consumer electronics manufacturers,” said Mark Hyman, VP, corporate relations, Sinclair Broadcast Group.
The provision took the industry by surprise because broadcasters have long believed that the 85 percent loophole was politically sacrosanct on the theory that no politician in his right mind would risk alienating voters by forcing them to buy expensive new sets or other technology.
But Rep. Tauzin said in a statement that stern measures are needed to get the faltering transition to DTV on track.
“While we would prefer marketplace solutions, clearly it is time for us to provide leadership in this area,” Rep. Tauzin said.
A ray of hope for broadcasters is that the lawmaker, who has a reputation for poltical savvy, may change his mind.
After all, in his statement on the legislation, Rep. Tauzin refers to the bill as a “bipartisan staff draft,” cautiously distancing himself from it.
Broadcasters will have ample opportunity to work on him before scheduled hearings on the bill this Wednesday.
Indeed, sources said the reason the lawmaker was not available for comment late last week was because he was on a Florida fishing trip/ fund-raiser partly sponsored by the National Association of Broadcasters. The annual event, according to one well-placed industry source, usually raises about $50,000 for the congressman.
“We’re disappointed,” said David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television. “It’s a staff draft; it’s designed to stimulate discussion, and that provision surely will.”
The broadcasters could find themselves with an unusual ally in the form of consumer groups.
“We do have concerns,” said David Butler, a spokesman for Consumers Union. Rep. Tauzin’s proposal, he said, “could impose substantial new costs on consumers.”
Other controversial provisions in the legislation would do the following:
* Codify recent Federal Communications Commission rules requiring consumer electronics manufacturers to include DTV and analog tuners in new sets;
* Make clear that cable operators won’t have to carry both a broadcaster’s analog and digital TV signals during the transition to the new technology;
* Mandate that cable subscribers be able to get DTV programming without a separate cable set-top box;
* Allow broadcasters to use technology preventing streaming of their entertainment programming, but not news and public affairs shows, on the Internet.
The bill is silent on whether to require cable operators that carry a broadcast DTV signal to carry all of the free programming included, another big issue for broadcasters. Sources attributed that to the lack of a firm position by lawmakers.
“To be supplied,” the explanatory paper said.
At deadline, the NAB had no comment on the legislation.
But Robert Sachs, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said the association looks forward to working with lawmakers on the legislation.
“At the same time, we will continue to work to achieve interindustry solutions to as many of these issues as is possible,” Mr. Sachs said.
The Consumer Electronics Association said in a statement, “This draft legislation is a welcome, critical and helpful step toward driving the digital television transition.”