Spectrum Vote Sparks Fallout

Sep 27, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Five of Paxson Communications’ 61 TV stations could be forced off the air if legislation approved by the Senate Commerce Committee last week is signed into law.

That was the assessment offered by Dean Goodman, Paxson Communications president and chief operating officer, after passage of a measure that could require Paxson and other broadcasters operating TV stations on Channels 63, 64, 68 and 69 to clear their frequencies for public safety use as of Jan. 1, 2008.

“This would certainly have a negative impact,” Mr. Goodman said.

Making the bill particularly hard to swallow for Pax and the other broadcasters operating the 75 TV stations that could lose their spectrum assignments under the new measure is that it was part of a compromise that the National Association of Broadcasters used to derail a measure backed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would have forced all TV stations to switch from analog to digital by Jan. 1, 2009.

With the encouragement of NAB, the Senate Commerce Committee voted 13-9 to ax Sen. McCain’s measure last week. But the legislative price was the bill that offered up broadcast channels from 63 to 69 to meet the demands by public safety agencies for more communications frequencies.

“This was a deal by NAB for the majority [of broadcasters] that made the minority expendable,” Mr. Goodman said.

“They did what they felt they needed to do … and they sacrificed 75 TV stations to do it,” Mr. Goodman said.

Said Sen. McCain, “Sometimes, I guess, [the NAB has] to throw somebody over the side.”

Some industry critics said that even if the bill is signed into law this year, it is essentially impotent because it gives the Federal Communications Commission discretion to waive the spectrum-eviction requirements.

“Anybody with a heartbeat and pulse can read that,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., before the committee’s vote.

But according to Mr. Goodman, there’s nothing in the legislation that compels the FCC to act in the best interests of the 75 TV stations that could be disenfranchised.

“It’s not a win for us,” Mr. Goodman said.

Still, the bill is a clear victory for the more than 1,600 other broadcasters operating TV stations outside the Channel 63-69 band. If Sen. McCain’s original bill had passed, they might all have had to vacate their analog channels by Jan. 1, 2009.

Sen. McCain was 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 as it stands, the vast majority of broadcasters won’t have to make the switch to digital until 85 percent of households in their markets can receive digital signals, something industry critics say may not happen for decades.

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

In more good news for NAB last week, 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’s positions.

Univision Communications, the Spanish-language broadcaster that also owns several TV stations on Channels 63-69, declined comment.

Also last week, the Senate Commerce Committee approved an amendment offered by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., directing the FCC to establish guidelines requiring TV stations to offer some independently produced programming, local news and other locally originated shows.

At the same time, the committee approved legislation requiring the agency to act on long-pending proceedings resolving the broadcasting industry’s digital must-carry rights and determining their digital public interest requirements by Jan. 1.