B’casters Trying to Derail Ferree Plan


TV broadcasters are trying to derail a Federal Communications Commission plan that would likely terminate analog TV in the United States Dec. 31, 2008.

According to an informed source, NBC Universal is leading the effort to build a coalition that wants to get Congress to pressure the FCC into postponing action indefinitely.

An NBC spokesperson suggested that the company was not taking the lead, as others indicated.

“We are aware of the coalition and the participation of our affiliates, [the] NAB [National Association of Broadcasters] and others, but NBC is not a member of the coalition,” the NBC spokesperson said.

Although they have been estranged for years, NBC, ABC and CBS are partnering with the NAB, their independent affiliate groups and at least one broadcast union to take their message to Capitol Hill that the FCC plan would disenfranchise millions of viewers, an informed source said.

The FCC plan was designed by Media Bureau chief Kenneth Ferree. FCC chairman Michael Powell has embraced it, but he has not provided details to the other four commissioners.

“It should come as no surprise that the NAB does not support the Ferree plan, and it shouldn’t be any surprise that we continue to educate Congress and their staff on issues of importance to broadcasters,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

The NAB has told the FCC that if analog broadcasting were terminated today, 73 million TV sets -- or 26% of all TV sets in the country -- would be useless unless consumers went out and purchased converter boxes or hooked those sets to cable or direct-broadcast satellite services.

Equipping each TV set with a $300 set-top would cost consumers $22 billion today, the NAB told the FCC.

The FCC planned to vote on the Ferree plan in November, but that got pushed off until the Dec. 15 meeting. However, according to an FCC source, agency leaders are preoccupied with drafting new phone-competition rules and won’t be addressing the Ferree plan until after the Dec. 15 meeting.

Some members of Congress have urged the FCC to delay action on the Ferree plan. But House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) actually supports a more aggressive timetable than the FCC's.

Barton favors a Dec. 31, 2006, deadline, adding that set-top subsidies to ensure that at least the poor continued to have access to free TV could be limited to about $1 billion, with funding coming from the auction of the returned analog spectrum.