Washington — In his conflicts with local TV stations, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) routinely comes away with muddy clothes and a bloody nose.
“I have a perfect record. I've never beaten them,” McCain quipped last week as he introduced legislation designed to spark another policy donnybrook with the National Association of Broadcasters.
McCain's bill (S. 1237), a complex measure calling for as many changes in the tax code as in communications law, is a threat to broadcasters because they would need to surrender their analog TV licenses no later than Dec. 31, 2008.
'STAFF DRAFT' IN HOUSE
Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is developing his own DTV bill said to be just a few weeks away from an unveiling. Meanwhile, House leaders have circulated only a “staff draft,” but the partisan bickering that greeted it was not encouraging to those that want to accelerate the DTV transition.
Despite his track record with broadcasters and the uncertainty in the House, McCain thinks he can prevail in the fight to reclaim the analog spectrum.
“I think, finally, we are going to see this become a reality and I hope it's this year,” McCain told reporters.
In 1997, every commercial and public TV station was loaned a second channel for digital transmission until at least 85% of TV households, measured locally, had digital-reception equipment. TV spectrum, found low on the frequency chart, is considered prime real estate.
Pressure is mounting to end the transition to all-digital broadcasting before the 85% test has been met because many lawmakers — and especially McCain — want to see a big chunk of analog-TV spectrum go to firefighters and emergency crews that need better mobile communications to meet the next crisis.
At a press conference last Tuesday, McCain unveiled his bill, flanked by family members of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and by Thomas H. Kean and Lee Hamilton, respectively the chairman and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission. That panel urged Congress to earmark spectrum for first responders, saying it would contribute to their ability to save lives in case of another 9/11 attack. In fact, the formal title of the McCain bill is the “SAVE LIVES” act.
McCain said the time had come for NAB to yield to the public safety community.
“I think everybody should recognize that they are an incredibly powerful lobby and why they would choose not to act in the public interest is something they will have to answer for,” McCain said.
WTC VICTIM CITED
Mary Fetchet, founding director of Voices of September 11th, spoke after McCain to argue that mobile communications failures contributed to the death of her son Brad, 24, who was trapped on the 89th floor of 2 World Trade Center.
“If first responders were able to communicate, he could have had the chance of really getting down that stairwell that was open on tower two,” Fetchet said in a firm voice, despite the sorrow she was describing. “Commanders on the ground were not able to give orders to the firefighters and police in the tower.”
For their part, broadcasters claim they are the ones that provide the most accurate and timely information about local emergencies. Citing the Department of Homeland Security, the NAB has said that communications problems have been resolved in many large U.S. markets considered terrorist targets.
The NAB's concern about ending the DTV transition on a “hard date” is that it threatens the 73 million analog TVs that rely exclusively on free, over the air broadcasting. Those TV won't work without a digital-to-analog converter box or a connection to cable or satellite TV.
“We are committed to completing the digital transition in a timely fashion, including return of analog spectrum, and will work with Congress to ensure that millions of consumers are not left stranded by a premature end to analog broadcasting,” NAB president Edward Fritts said in a statement last week.
McCain would address the NAB's concern by offering subsidies. His bill calls for setting aside $468 million (including $5 million for administrative costs) to provide one free converter box for each household that meets certain income criteria. Funding would come from auctioning some analog spectrum to wireless broadband companies, many of which support McCain's bill.
McCain expects the funding will cover 9.3 million boxes, even though the 20 million U.S. households that are broadcast-only have about 45 million analog TVs.
House lawmakers have said that if Congress failed to protect all 73 million analog sets, voters with snowy TV sets will react angrily and exact revenge at the next election.
McCain's bill also addressed cable carriage of digital TV signals. Effective Jan. 1, 2009, cable operators would have a permanent right to downconvert digital-TV signals to analog.
Cable operators would need to carry all must-carry stations in analog and digital if the operator decided to downconvert any of them. The “convert one, convert all” language sunsets on Dec. 31, 2012.
McCain's carriage approach tracks with the House draft bill. At a House hearing last month, National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow complained that the treatment of must-carry stations was tantamount to dual must-carry, to which the industry objects.
Asked about the McCain bill, NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz would not address the must carry portions directly.
“We look forward to continue working with Sen. McCain and other members of Congress to address the important goal of ensuring a smooth digital TV transition,” he said.
Like the House draft bill, McCain would require cable to carry digital and analog broadcast signals on the basic tier after Dec. 31, 2008. Since all cable subscribers must purchase the basic tier, basic-tier rates could shoot up and stay there until cable operators no longer needed to transmit analog signals.
In an interesting twist, McCain would not require cable to place a TV station's second, third or fourth multicast digital service on the basic tier.
|<p>Key Bill Terms</p>|
• Ends DTV transition on Dec. 31, 2008
• Auctions analog TV spectrum
• Provides $468 million for free set-tops
• Cable may downconvert DTV signals
• Basic-tier carriage of analog and digital
Source: MCN Research