McCain’s Digital Conversion Measure Defeated

Sep 22, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In a major victory for the National Association of Broadcasters, the Senate Commerce Committee voted 13-9 today to ax legislation that would have required broadcasters to make the switch from analog to digital TV by Jan. 1, 2009. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., had been vigorously promoting the measure to clear the way to reallocate some of the broadcast industry’s analog TV channels for public safety communications.

Under the plan, the broadcasting industry’s remaining analog frequencies are supposed to be auctioned to raise billions of dollars for the federal Treasury. But in the wake of an NAB lobbying campaign, the committee instead voted to adopt a compromise of sorts that would require only those broadcasters operating on channels 63, 64, 68 and 69 to clear their frequencies for public safety use as of Jan. 1, 2008.

The compromise legislation gives the Federal Communications Commission such broad leeway to waive the transition requirement that critics said the legislation is essentially impotent.

“Anybody with a heartbeat and pulse can read that,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who voted against NAB.

“Clearly, NAB is trying to create a loophole,” added Sen. McCain. But Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., who voted NAB’s way on the legislation, said: “What you’re calling a loophole we call flexibility.”

Even assuming the compromise measure is ultimately signed into law, industry sources said the committee vote means the current regulations governing the DTV transition will remain in force for the vast majority of the nation’s TV stations. The current rules say broadcasters don’t have to make the switch until 85 percent of households in their markets can receive digital signals, something industry critics say may not happen for decades.

In a statement, Eddie Fritts, NAB president and CEO, said, “Today’s vote balances the legitimate needs of public safety providers while limiting the disruption of local television service to millions of consumers.”

In more good news for NAB, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who is slated to take over the chairmanship of the Senate Commerce Committee next year, voted in support of NAB.