DTV Bill Asks Stations for $5 Bil in Ads

Oct 31, 2005  •  Post A Comment

All TV stations would have to devote two 60-second spots every day for a year-more than $5 billion worth of ad time-to promote the transition to digital TV, under new legislation approved last week by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The provision, buried in a 33-page bill that would force broadcasters to make the switch to DTV by Dec. 31, 2008, requires all TV stations to run the ads daily between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. and again between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. during the preceding year, starting Jan. 1, 2008.

The legislation also provides the required text intended to alert consumers that analog broadcasts are nearing extinction and providing advice on ways to ensure that their sets continue to work after DTV-Day.

Though sources said it’s clearly in the industry’s best interest to alert viewers to the changes, some executives are concerned that the House legislation sets a dangerous precedent, one that could encourage Congress to force TV stations to promote other causes in the future.

“Seems like mandated speech,” said Shaun Sheehan, Tribune VP in Washington.

Added Dan Jaffe, executive VP of the Association of National Advertisers: “When they start to tell you what to do, that does raise some First Amendment concerns.”

But according to Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, the NAB is not fighting the controversial provision.

“We’re not opposed to the idea of educating the American public on the benefits of digital and high-definition television,” Mr. Wharton said. “We’ve been doing that all along.”

Patrick Maines, president of the industry First Amendment watchdog Media Institute-which recently announced a joint venture with NAB’s education foundation to establish the third week of October as National Freedom of Speech Week-declined comment.

Industry analysts said it’s not unprecedented for the government to require broadcasters to air some kinds of information, including station identifications and emergency alerts.

But the bill’s DTV mandate goes farther by requiring the TV industry to promote a particular social initiative, one that comes with a script included.

During the House committee vote on the legislation last week, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., a radio broadcaster, said he had timed the required text on his own and thought the message could be pared down to a 30-second spot.

“Nobody does :60s anymore to begin with,” said Gary Belis, a spokesman for the Television Bureau of Advertising.

The script in the legislation, which the bill says broadcasters must include in the mandatory public service messages, reads as follows: “After Dec. 31, 2008, television broadcasters will broadcast only in digital format. You will then no longer be able to receive broadcast programming on analog-only televisions unless those televisions are connected to a digital-to-analog converter box or a cable or satellite service. The device, if any, that a cable or satellite subscriber will need to connect to an analog television will depend on the cable or satellite service provider.

Analog-only televisions should continue to work as before, however, with devices such as VCRs, digital video recorders, DVD players, and video game systems. You may be eligible for up to two coupons toward the purchase of up to two converter boxes.” The text then refers viewers to the FCC.

Along with setting Dec. 31, 2008, as the DTV transition date, the House Commerce Committee’s DTV legislation, approved 33-17 largely along party lines, would provide up to $990 million to subsidize the acquisition of digital-to-analog converter boxes for analog-only sets.

House Democrats had proposed an amendment that would have set the transition date as April 7, 2009, and provided whatever it cost-estimated by Democrats to be up to $4 billion-to subsidize the acquisition of converter boxes for all 73 million analog-only sets currently in U.S. households.

But the Republican-dominated committee rejected the Democratic amendment in a 28-21 party-line vote.

Democrats said the Republican plan adopted would provide funding for only roughly 20 million converter boxes, leaving on their own the owners of more than 50 million other sets.

In a blow to broadcasters, the bill also did not include a provision that would require cable TV operators to carry all programming streams multicast on DTV channels.

In addition, the legislation included a provision opposed by NAB that will allow cable TV operators to downconvert high-definition broadcast signals to standard-definition DTV for five years after the transition.