Barton: ’06 Cutoff Has Legs

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Washington— Broadcast’s transition to all-digital transmission could be over in a matter of months.

The switch to DTV was expected to last many more years, because stations are generally allowed to keep beaming analog signals until 85% of TV households are capable of receiving digital ones.

Since 1998, only 16 million DTV sets (mostly HDTV monitors) have been sold. In 2004 alone, 30 million analog sets were sold.

SEES VOTES IN HOUSE

But last Tuesday, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said he thinks he has the votes in the House to end TV stations’ transition to digital-only broadcasting on Dec. 31, 2006.

“I think I have the votes in the House. I won’t swear it,” Barton said. “I think I’ve got the votes in the House, and then we’ll work with the Senate and see.”

Barton told a National Association of Broadcasters audience here that he’d soon introduce a bill with the 2006 deadline and other provisions dealing with making affordable converter boxes available to low-income households that don’t subscribe to cable or satellite.

Broadcasters oppose a hard date in 2006 because they say consumers aren’t ready to acquire millions of boxes to keep their analog sets working, and because they don’t know whether cable systems will be allowed to downconvert their digital signals to analog at the headend.

Last month, Insight Communications Co. CEO Michael Willner told a House subcommittee that the cable industry thinks a firm date is the best way to end the transition.

Barton said his purpose is to provide certainty for ending the transition, which will allow analog spectrum to be recovered and reallocated to public-safety groups. Some of the spectrum will be sold at auction to broadband-wireless companies.

“I do think it is good public policy,” he added. “I hope we can make it happen and do it in a way that doesn’t give you guys heartburn.”

Barton believes that $50 converter boxes will flood the market and the cost to provide subsidies will be $1 billion or less.

“It’s not going to cost nearly as much as some of the high estimates,” Barton said.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission said the subsidy would range between $340 million and $7.6 billion, depending on how many households are eligible for boxes estimated to cost $67 apiece.

“I think it would be a one-time deal. It would be means-tested in all probability, based on income,” Barton said.

Current law is a problem and needs to be addressed, said Barton. The 85% test, he said, extends the transition indefinitely and could leave consumers without over-the-air television in markets that have met that threshold.

“Under current law, those [analog] sets go dark,” he said. “Don’t assume that the status quo is benign. It’s not.”

Barton had some more bad news for NAB: He does not support multicast must-carry, or cable carriage of multiple DTV signals per station.

“I have never been, philosophically, a must-carry person,” Barton said. “I was not for must carry 20 years ago.”

NAB is urging Congress to overturn a Feb. 10 FCC ruling that required cable to carry one DTV signal per station. NAB might go to court or ask the FCC to reconsider the ruling.

Barton said market forces will lead to cable carriage, except for a market’s marginal stations.

“There are some mandates that we have to have, but I don’t think that’s one of them,” he said. “I am not going to be a must-carry guy.”

DOUBTERS IN SENATE

Earlier Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told the same NAB forum he did not support an abrupt end to the transition favored by Barton.

“We can’t be that heavy-handed. It won’t work,” Reid said.

Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) also expressed doubts about a 2006 cutoff.

“There’s a lot to be answered before that question is decided, in my judgment,” Stevens told the NAB forum.

The White House supports clearing the analog spectrum expeditiously, but last year the administration opposed a bill that earmarked $1 billion for set-top subsidies.

A broadcasting source said he did not believe Barton had a House majority to win passage of a 2006 deadline.

Barton said he wasn’t discouraged about the Senate reports.

“I think the Senate is supportive of a hard date,” he said. “It wouldn’t be fair to say they’re supportive of the hard date that I’m supportive of, which is Dec. 31, 2006.”

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