Hurricane Puts DTV Bill on Hold

Sep 12, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Digital TV legislation has been put on a back burner while federal legislators focus on efforts to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Lawmakers had been hoping to complete DTV legislation-which would include such important elements as the transition’s target date-by Sept. 16 to have their measures included in a massive budget reconciliation bill.

But Katrina forced Capitol Hill to shift its priorities.

“[DTV legislation] is on hold,” Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, told reporters in an impromptu hallway interview last week. “We’re not going to get involved in any kind of legislation that is not related to this disaster until we can figure out that we have enough in place to recover from it.”

As of late last week, it was unclear how long action on DTV legislation would be put off. But a plan was under discussion by House and Senate leaders to put off the deadline for the reconciliation package for a couple of weeks or so, giving lawmakers with DTV bill oversight a breather, sources said.

Lawmakers want to include the DTV bill in the reconciliation package because the bill will be used to determine future spending caps for congressional committees.

With the DTV legislation included, lawmakers on the House and Senate commerce committees will be able to justify spending on other programs over the next five years totaling more than $4.8 billion, the minimum expected to be raised from auctions of rights to the analog TV channels that broadcasters are supposed to return to the federal government in the DTV transition’s wake.

Despite the hurricane, industry lobbying on the DTV bill was in full force in Washington last week, with about 100 TV station executives in town urging lawmakers to support a provision in the legislation to require cable TV operators to carry all of the free programming streams broadcast on their digital channels.

The National Association of Broadcasters sent a slick video e-mail to congressional offices contending that cable’s opposition to a multicast-carriage requirement is anticompetitive.

“The giant cable companies want you to see only what they own or they produce themselves,” the video says. “Congress needs to protect consumers and give them the freedom of choice they demand and deserve.”

At the same time, Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, warned that a multicast-carriage rule could be met by cable TV industry lawsuits that would cost the federal government billions of dollars.

Mr. McSlarrow said a rule could expose the federal government to financial liability because it could be construed as a “taking” of cable TV property rights under the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the seizure of property without just compensation.

During a briefing for reporters, NCTA also released a study that put a value of $4.2 billion to $115.6 billion on the bandwidth cable operators would lose under a multicast-carriage regime.

Mr. McSlarrow said the cable TV industry has yet to decide whether to sue to collect what it would regard as “just compensation” for the use of its bandwidth.

During the briefing, Mr. McSlarrow also repeated the cable TV industry’s contention that a multicast-carriage requirement would violate the cable industry’s First Amendment rights.

“Of course it’s a possibility,” he said. “You could go into court and file a claim.”

In addition, a legal analysis NCTA released last week contends that a multicast-carriage requirement would run afoul of Fifth Amendment prohibitions on the seizure of property.

“The marketplace is the right place to decide these issues,” Mr. McSlarrow said in the briefing.

A spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters said in response: “NCTA’s monopolistic plea for less competition and reduced program choice for consumers rings hollow. This is the same discredited argument made by NCTA in 1992, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld rules that resulted in an explosion of new programming options for viewers. We’re optimistic that Congress will reject the call of the monopolist and embrace more choice for local television viewers.”

“Over the next couple of weeks, we’ve got a lot of people coming in [to lobby on Capitol Hill],” said Mr. McSlarrow. “Whatever the arguments are that are being made by the NAB, we are going to counter.”

Also complicating efforts by lawmakers to approve DTV legislation is that the Senate is expected to be focused on President Bush’s nomination of Judge John Roberts to succeed William Rehnquist as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Confirmation hearings were supposed to begin today.

During House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings on Hurricane Katrina relief last week, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, who has been leading the charge on DTV legislation in the House, announced that he plans to fly back to Texas soon, as his wife is preparing to give birth.