Broadcasters were pressing thumbs to temples last week after absorbing some shocking news contained in proposed House legislation.
The bill would force TV stations to abandon analog broadcast service on Dec. 31, 2006. If that happened, consumers that did not subscribe to cable or direct-broadcast satellite service would have to buy a digital TV set or some kind of off-air digital-to-analog converter to ensure their analog TV sets didn't become instantly obsolete.
The proposal was the very first provision in draft legislation circulated last week by House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). That two longtime friends of the broadcast industry would propose the death sentence for analog TV — and risk massive consumer disruption on the eve of multiple college football bowl games on New Year's Day 2007 — had some broadcasters gasping for air.
"Is there anything more anti-competitive than turning off television sets?" a broadcast-industry source complained.
In another setback for broadcasters, the bill would explicitly ban the Federal Communications Commission from ordering cable operators to carry both analog and digital broadcast signals.
The bill, which also addresses copyright protection and cable/consumer electronics interoperability, had at least one glaring omission: It deliberately made no mention of whether digital TV stations that elect must-carry have the right to demand cable carriage of multiple programming streams.
Tauzin issued a statement saying the draft represented "a starting point" for a government-led effort to advance the DTV transition.
The National Association of Broadcasters declined to comment. National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Robert Sachs, who typically refrains from commenting on legislation that hasn't been introduced, said he would work with Congress on the bill and continue to seek private-sector solutions.
On Wednesday (Sept. 25), the draft bill will be the focus of a hearing in the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.
Robert Wright, CEO of NBC and vice chairman of General Electric Co., is scheduled to testify. So too are cable-industry witnesses Lana Corbi, president and CEO of Crown Media U.S., which operates Hallmark Channel; and Jim Gleason, president and CEO of CableDirect in Sikeston, Mo. Gleason is also chairman of the small-operator American Cable Association. A large-MSO executive is also expected to testify.
The move to shut off analog broadcasting on Dec. 31, 2006 is not a new concept. It was part of the original DTV transition timetable adopted by the FCC in 1996, but a year later Congress passed a law that said an analog-TV station with a digital license was not required to surrender the analog license until at least 85 percent of households in the local market had the capability to receive off-air DTV signals.
With the DTV transition moving slowly, the 85-percent test was expected to allow TV stations to retain valuable analog and digital spectrum for many years to come. Congress wants to reclaim the analog spectrum as quickly as possible and have the FCC auction it to the wireless phone industry.