Watching Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) tangle with the National Association of Broadcasters is a little like watching the Washington Generals shoot hoops with the Harlem Globetrotters: the outcome is preordained.
Last week, McCain introduced a bill (S. 2820) that would have taken back TV stations’ analog spectrum by 2009 — unconditionally ending the DTV transition to free up a huge block of prime airwaves that could net the U.S. Treasury as much as $70 billion in an auction.
DIDN’T LAST LONG
McCain’s plan didn’t last more than 24 hours, as the NAB’s lobbying team crafted an alternative that eviscerated any hope the prolonged DTV transition would conclude on a certain date — and provide much-needed spectrum for fire and rescue squads that suffered communications problems at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 because their handsets were tuned to different frequencies.
“As usual, the National Association of Broadcasters is up to their old tricks,” said McCain, who has tangled with NAB repeatedly over the years, largely without success.
Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), who helped the NAB scuttle McCain’s bill, said that broadcasters had legitimate concerns and that changes to McCain’s bill did in fact address public safety communications needs.
“I want to plead guilty to listening to the National Association of Broadcasters. They are a very, very reputable group. They have concerns. I have never been a patsy for them,” said Hollings, who is retiring at the end of this Congress.
McCain’s plan required all TV stations to vacate their analog spectrum on Dec. 31, 2008, freeing up 108 Megahertz of spectrum in contiguous blocks within the 700-MHz band, including 24 MHz for public safety. Broadcast spectrum is beachfront property because its propagation characteristics allow signals to penetrate walls over large distances.
Effective Jan. 1, 2009, TV stations would broadcast in digital only. If that occurred today, 73 million analog TV sets would be useless.
McCain addressed that problem by including $1 billion to subsidize set-top boxes for low-income households that do not subscribe to cable or satellite, although the subsidies could be used to install a pay TV service.
NAB’s response was contained in an amendment to McCain bill sponsored by Hollings and Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.). The amendment called for providing 24 MHz for public safety no later than Jan. 1, 2008, but the FCC could rescind the mandate if allocating the spectrum would cause “consumer disruption.”
During debate in his committee last Wednesday, McCain pointed out that the Jan. 1, 2008, deadline proposed by Burns was a sham because taking away some of the TV spectrum instead of all of it would, by definition, create consumer disruption.
“The deal should be that everybody should get off or nobody should get off,” McCain said. “Clearly, NAB is trying to create a loophole.”
The disruption would occur because TV stations that had to shut off analog broadcasting probably could not find other analog channels to operate until all broadcasters had completed the transition. Although those stations could transmit in digital and reach cable and direct-broadcast satellite viewers, they would lose any off-air viewer without digital-reception equipment.
McCain said the Burns amendment would have a “terrible discriminatory effect on Hispanic television,” adding that 3.4 million Hispanic households would lose Univision and Telemundo.
“I don’t see how the National Association of Broadcasters can take this position, to stick it to two of their major members,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (R-Fla.)
Quipped McCain: “Sometimes, I guess they have to throw somebody over the side.”
The Burns-Hollings amendment passed 13-9. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is permitted to vote by proxy, did not leave instructions with Hollings on how to cast his vote.
Except for the stations using spectrum earmarked for public safety in the Burns amendment, no other TV station in the country is threatened with a return of an analog license on Dec. 31, 2008, as McCain proposed.
Instead, nearly all TV stations would be governed by current law, which allows analog broadcasting to continue in any market where less than 85% of TV households have acquired digital TV sets or digital-to-analog converts.
Many believe the 85% test postpones the transition well beyond 2009 and puts off the date when public safety will receive new spectrum.
9/11 COMMISSION TIE
McCain’s bill was crafted to implement recommendations of the 9/11 commission. It is not clear whether the bill will reach the White House this year.
The vote was an important victory for the NAB because the group did not want a firm DTV-transition deadline caught up in 9/11 legislation, which could become a defining issue in the presidential race and force Congress to act.
In the 2002 congressional elections, some Democratic lawmakers lost their jobs because they objected to homeland security legislation pushed by the White House.
NAB president Edward Fritts was seated in the audience when the Burns amendment passed.
“This was a big win for Eddie,” a broadcast lobbyist said after the vote.
“Today’s vote balances the legitimate needs of public safety providers while limiting the disruption of local television service to millions of consumers. NAB thanks Sens. [Ted] Stevens (R-Alaska), Burns, Hollings and [Daniel) Inouye (D-Hawaii) — along with other senators who supported the Burns amendment — for recognizing the importance of a vibrant, universal and free system of local broadcasting,” Fritts said in a statement.
Although McCain lost on a firm DTV deadline, he was able to retain other key provisions.
McCain’s bill would require that TV set makers, no later than Sept. 30, 2005, place labels on analog TV sets saying that the units won’t work after Dec. 31, 2008, without additional equipment.
TV set retailers would be required to post the same information in their stores.
A McCain aide said the label provision was now “problematic” because the Burns amendment passed and blurred when the transition would end.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) won support for an amendment that would require DTV stations to air locally produced programming about elections and public affairs. It also would require a DTV station to broadcast “independently produced programming.”
The FCC would establish “minimum quantitative guidelines” that would be used to measure a DTV station’s compliance at license renewal time.
MUM ON MULTICASTING
McCain’s bill was silent on whether cable and satellite operators shall be required to carry a DTV station’s multiple programming streams.
But the bill would require the FCC to issue a final decision on multicasting carriage requirement by Jan. 1, 2005.
National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Robert Sachs sent McCain a letter last week which endorsed giving the FCC a deadline to act on the multicasting issue.
“These matters have been under consideration for nearly four years and we believe that their resolution would help all parties begin post-transition planning,” Sachs said.
In January 2001, the FCC ruled that a cable system had to carry just one DTV signal per station, even though digital technology allows each DTV station to transmit five or six programming services.
NAB’s victory over McCain shifts the DTV transition debate to the FCC. The FCC is expected to vote Nov. 9 on a plan that would track with McCain’s legislation by ending the DTV transition on Dec. 31, 2008.