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Digital Deadline Bill Advances

Oct 24, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Legislation approved 19-3 by the Senate Commerce Committee last week set a deadline of April 7, 2009, for the broadcast industry’s transition to digital transmission and earmarked $3 billion to help subsidize digital-to-analog converter boxes so consumers won’t lose access to over-the-air broadcast signals in the transition’s wake.

But what will become of the broadcast industry’s quest to win a law requiring cable TV operators to carry all of the free programming streams multicast on DTV channels-the legislative tradeoff that the broadcasters have been seeking in exchange for their support of a firm transition date-was far from clear late last week.

“[Broadcasters] are getting a hard date, and not these other things [multicast carriage rules and other DTV-related provisions that broadcasters want],” said a broadcast industry source.

Under the original game plan, broadcasters wanted to roll the transition date and multicast carriage into a single bill, on the assumption that the legislative momentum behind the effort to force the transition in 2009 would ensure that multicast carriage became law at the same time.

The plan was scrapped after Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, made clear that due to parliamentary concerns, the bill approved last week could include only provisions directly related to congressional budgetary concerns because lawmakers wanted to include the measure in a major budget bill.

Further complicating the picture for broadcasters is that a draft bill circulated by the House Energy and Commerce Committee late last week would require larger cable TV operators to carry both the analog and digital signals of broadcasters for five years after the transition. But the bill would not require cable operators to carry broadcasters’ DTV multicasts.

Sen. Stevens has gone on record in support of moving a second DTV bill in the Senate, one that would determine the fate of multicast carriage and other issues important to the industry. But as of late last week, the senator said the second bill was still “in his head,” and it was unclear when lawmakers would move on it.

In remarks last week, Sen. Stevens, the influential chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, also said the second bill might include special provisions regarding children’s viewing hours, political broadcasting and decency.

“We’re hopeful multicast will be dealt with in the companion bill as soon as Sen. Stevens deems possible,” said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.

The draft legislation released by the House last week sets the DTV transition for Dec. 31, 2008 and earmarks $1 billion for the acquisition of digital-to-analog converters.

The House bill’s dual-carriage obligation on cable applies only to systems with a capacity of greater than 550 megahertz.

NAB had no comment on the House bill.

But in a statement, Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said the cable industry would accept the House bill’s dual-carriage obligation-an obligation NCTA has previously opposed.

“We are willing to make this significant concession expressly to facilitate congressional action returning broadcasters’ analog spectrum for important uses like public safety and to facilitate the consumer transition,” Mr. McSlarrow said.

Mr. McSlarrow also said cable operators have agreed to pay for the costs of downconverting must-carry broadcasting signals from digital to analog so cable customers with analog-only TV sets won’t need a separate converter box to watch broadcast signals.

“We are pleased that this legislation rejects a multicasting mandate,” Mr. McSlarrow said. “We remain adamant that multicasting requirements are unconstitutional and not in the best interest of our customers, and we will continue to oppose them.”