McCain’s ’08 Digital Plan Tossed

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Washington— Handing broadcasters a key victory, the Senate last Thursday voted overwhelmingly to reject moving the digital-TV transition ahead by one year, as proposed in an amendment sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

In a 69-30 vote, the Senate refused to set April 7, 2008, as the date for shutting off analog TV. By doing so, lawmakers endorsed the April 7, 2009, date contained in the bill McCain had attempted to amend.

McCain sought to advance the date to expedite the transfer of some analog-TV spectrum to first responders, in an effort to address their concerns about inadequate mobile communications when multiple jurisdictions respond to crises, such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

McCain’s opponents complained that a 2008 cutoff was premature because it would likely reduce revenue from planned analog-TV spectrum auctions and force the government to spend more on set-top subsidies for analog TVs that rely exclusively on free, over-the-air broadcasting.

“It will destroy the process we are in. I urge the Senate not to adopt it,” said Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) on Wednesday, the day before the Senate floor vote.

The National Association of Broadcasters backed Stevens.

In his floor comments Wednesday, McCain lashed out at the NAB, saying he was “sick and tired” of the trade group’s putting the interests of “television viewers” ahead of the lives of first responders.

“Today’s overwhelming 69-30 vote in the Senate represents a victory for millions of Americans who could have been left stranded by a premature end to analog television service,” said NAB president Edward Fritts in a statement.

According to the industry and government sources, the U.S. has 73 million analog TVs that are not connected to pay TV services. All would need a set-top or a connection to cable or satellite to keep working in a digital-only broadcast environment.

House legislation approved by the Energy & Commerce Committee would terminate the transition on Dec. 31, 2008, four months earlier than the main Senate bill. The different dates are expected to be reconciled later this year.

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