Washington -- House digital-TV legislation is unlikely to require cable systems to carry multiple digital-TV signals of each TV station, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said Tuesday.
Barton is a few months away from introducing a bill that would terminate analog broadcasting Dec. 31, 2006, claiming that a hard date was necessary to provide certainty to consumers and all industries involved.
Barton said he couldn’t guarantee a multicast-must-carry ban, but 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.
“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 said at the HDTV Summit here sponsored by the Consumer Electronics Association.
Last month, the Federal Communications Commission rejected multicast must-carry, forcing broadcasters to consider seeking relief in federal court or in Congress.
The United States has about 20 million households that rely exclusive on free, over-the-air broadcasting. About one-half of those homes have less than $30,000 in annual income.
Barton said the 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, it is estimated, will bring in $5 billion-$17 billion.
Barton said that 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 -- an amount that projected auction revenue would easily cover.
“If you’re auctioning the spectrum for $5 [billion] to $17 billion, you can afford to pay $400 million or $500 million to make this conversion,” he added.
TV stations generally support current law, which phases out analog broadcasting roughly when digital-TV-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-top 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.
Barton pointed a finger at broadcasters as the lone opponents of his plan.
“Everybody is for the hard date -- earlier rather than later -- and for certainty rather than uncertainty except one group, and that’s the National Association of Broadcasters,” Barton said. “They have every right to defend the status quo because under the status quo, they have a commodity that’s of value, and they want to maintain that value, but that doesn’t mean it’s good public policy.”