NAB Supports DTV ‘Hard Date’

Jul 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In a surprise move, the National Association of Broadcasters last week announced support for a law that would require TV stations to switch completely to digital by sometime in 2009.

Addressing a related issue, the NAB also announced that it is willing to discuss a deal under which it would agree to new quantified public-interest obligations for the industry in return for a regulation requiring cable TV operators to carry all of the signals that broadcasters multicast on their digital frequencies.

Thanks to digital compression, which allows them to put several signals in the spectrum that once carried a single signal, many broadcasters are planning spinoff channels. So far, cable TV operators have refused to guarantee carriage of all those new channels, and the government has yet to mandate such carriage.

Broadcasters have long come under attack for allegedly dragging their feet on the DTV transition. So NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts’ announcement during Senate hearings last week that the association now endorses a “hard date” in 2009 for the switch pre-empts one of the critics’ key arguments. “Broadcasters accept that Congress will implement a 2009 hard date for the end of analog broadcasts,” Mr. Fritts said in his testimony.

To the consternation of watchdog groups, NAB has previously opposed efforts to beef up the public-interest obligations for digital. NAB’s willingness to discuss the matter with lawmakers builds good will for DTV legislation that could require cable carriage-despite the cable TV industry’s staunch opposition to the obligation. “It’s a welcome thing,” said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in a post-hearing session with reporters, commenting on the NAB’s new stance.

Still, the cable trade group, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, vowed to fight the carriage proposal. “Nothing the broadcasters have proposed has the slightest bearing on how you can best ensure the return of the spectrum and how you can do so with a minimum of inconvenience to consumers,” said Kyle McSlarrow, NCTA president and CEO, in testimony at the hearings.

“Color me skeptical,” added Andrew Schwartzman, president of the activist Media Access Project, of NAB’s commitment to discuss public-interest obligations. “The NAB is always willing to talk, but whenever we’ve discussed details that really involve service to the public, they have not been interested.”

In remarks to reporters, Sen. Stevens said he wasn’t “comfortable” with a cable TV industry proposal that would allow operators to downconvert broadcast DTV signals to analog at system headends, making it cheaper for cable operators to provide broadcast signals to analog subscribers who don’t have digital-to-analog converter set-top boxes.

In addition, Sen. Stevens said he foavors setting the hard date for the transition sometime in 2009, but at a time when Congress is in session. “I think there’s liable to be a last-minute glitch that would require some type of modification to make this transition really work,” he said.

Sen. Stevens also said he wants to set a hard date barring the sale of analog-only TV sets, which will be obsolete once all broadcasts are digital. That could go into effect as early as this year. “We’ve got to stop that,” Sen. Stevens said. “It should be sooner rather than later.”