Barton: No Mandate For Multicasting

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Washington— House digital-TV legislation is unlikely to require cable systems to carry multiple DTV signals from each broadcaster, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said last Tuesday.

Barton — no fan of must-carry for the past couple of decades — is a few weeks away from introducing a bill that would terminate analog broadcasting Dec. 31, 2006, claiming that a hard date is necessary to provide certainty to consumers and all industries involved.

FOUR-WAY TALKS

Barton said he couldn’t guarantee a multicast must-carry ban, but stated that his preference was to exclude it. The bill introduced will represent the product of four-way talks between Barton and Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Barton said.

“We have some draft principles. What we haven’t done is finalize our discussions with our Democrats,” Barton said. “The snag is the House schedule — we’re here, we’re not here. We’re gone [this] week.”

In those talks, Barton hopes to prevail on the must-carry issue.

“My preferences are that we have the Dec. 31, 2006, hard date [and] that we don’t have multicast must-carry for the broadcasters,” Barton told the HDTV Summit sponsored by the Consumer Electronics Association.

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission rejected multicast must-carry, requiring cable to carry just one programming service per station. That ruling has forced broadcasters to consider seeking relief in federal court or Congress.

About 20 million U.S. households rely exclusively on free, over-the-air broadcasting. About one-half of those homes have less than $30,000 in annual income.

Barton’s bill would likely include a set-top-converter subsidy for low-income homes under an undefined “means test.” The federal government would issue a one-box rebate per eligible household.

Funding would come from the auction of analog-TV spectrum, which estimates say could bring in $5 billion to $17 billion.

If 50% of the over-the-air homes qualified for rebates, and if boxes cost about $50 each, the total cost to fund the transition would run about $500 million, said Barton — an amount that projected auction revenue would easily cover.

STATUS QUO BACKERS

TV stations generally support the current law, which phases out analog broadcasting roughly when DTV-equipment penetration hits 85% of TV households in each particular market. Broadcasters are concerned about losing access to 73 million analog-TV sets not connected to pay TV services, and they fear that cable systems will downconvert their digital signals to analog.

Providing a government-funded set-tops for all 73 million analog sets — a plan favored by some in the House — could cost more than $10 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office.

A few weeks ago, Barton indicated there is a majority in the House to support the Dec. 31, 2006 hard date. He pointed to broadcasters as the lone opponents of his plan.

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