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Tauzin’s DTV plan finds little support

Sep 30, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Concerned about a backlash from angry consumers, leading lawmakers last week publicly criticized a legislative proposal by Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., that would force broadcasters to switch to digital television by the end of 2006.
Under existing law, broadcasters don’t have to return their analog channels to the government until 85 percent of the viewers in their communities are capable of receiving DTV-something many industry observers don’t expect to happen for a dozen years or more.
In an effort to expedite the transition, Rep. Tauzin recently unveiled legislation that would set a firm 2006 deadline for the spectrum’s return, claiming bipartisan support for the initiative.
But during congressional hearings on the bill last week, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.-the influential ranking minority member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee-warned that the initiative would force consumers to spend hundreds of dollars just to keep TV service.
“I am not convinced that an expedited return of the spectrum should be the chief goal of this legislation,” Rep. Dingell said. “The Congress initiated the policy of converting the nation’s broadcast system to digital, and I believe the Congress has the singular responsibility of ensuring that no consumer is disenfranchised as a result.”
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., warned that outraged consumers would be likely to retaliate by ejecting supporters of the Tauzin plan. “An end of the analog signal on Dec. 31, 2006, could also be the end of many of our congressional careers,” Rep. Engel said.
The initiative was also panned by broadcasters at the hearings.
“By eliminating the 85 percent safeguard, this draft could disenfranchise millions of viewers and would do irreparable damage to free over-the-air broadcasting,” said Michael Fiorile, president and CEO of Dispatch Broadcast Group, who was testifying on behalf of the National Association of Broadcasters.
“It is undeniable that this mandate will impose significant new costs on consumers in the short run,” added Gene Kimmelman, senior director of public policy and advocacy for Consumers Union.
Even Rep. Tauzin appeared to backpedal, contending that his legislative initiatives were “designed to provoke tension,” to signal what Congress might do if the industry fails to move the transition along.
“I want to make clear that this is just a discussion draft; it’s not a bill,” Rep. Tauzin said.
Also at hearings, NBC President and CEO Bob Wright said he gave high marks to a provision in the bill that would require affiliates to gear up to pass through the high-definition TV signals of their networks.
“High definition is negated if a network only retransmits the network feed in standard definition,” Mr. Wright said. “Similarly, affiliates must be broadcasting at sufficiently high power so that viewers who now receive a good over-the-air analog signal also can receive a digital signal.”