Presenting what could amount to a serious threat to broadcasters, President Bush last week proposed legislation that would require TV stations that don’t switch to digital and return their analog channels to the government by 2007 to start paying annual spectrum fees.
The White House has been offering similar spectrum fee proposals for years, and so far the broadcasting industry has easily killed them.
But this time around, some industry lobbyists are concerned that the broadcasting industry’s fortunes could be taking a turn for the worse, largely because former Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who regularly derailed previous spectrum fee proposals at the industry’s behest, has resigned from Congress to head a pharmaceutical association.
Rep. Tauzin’s successor as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who made the industry nervous last week when he declined to comment on the president’s new spectrum fee proposal.
Indeed, instead of stepping up to the plate do the industry’s bidding, Rep. Barton was planning a Feb. 17 hearing to consider his own legislative proposal to force broadcasters to switch to digital as soon as 2006.
In a statement, the National Association of Broadcasters said it would fight the president’s spectrum fee proposal.
“Applying a spectrum tax on local TV stations would slow the DTV transition and ultimately harm consumers who rely on over-the-air broadcasting for news, entertainment and public interest programming,” NAB said.
Added Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the NAB, “We’ve always considered these [proposals] a serious threat, and it will be a serious threat this year as well.”
But one well-placed broadcast industry source disagreed with at least part of Mr. Wharton’s analysis. “For the first time, the industry is facing a real threat,” the source said.
Under this year’s version of the legislative proposal, which was included in President Bush’s proposed federal budget for fiscal 2006, the fee would raise $500 million from the nation’s 1,400 commercial TV stations under a formula devised by the Federal Communications Commission.
As was the case under previous versions of the proposed bill, stations would no longer be subject to the fees after they turned their analog channels in to the government, which would then auction off the spectrum.