NAB Commits to DTV Hard Date

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For the first time, TV stations agreed Tuesday to surrender their analog-TV spectrum no later than the end of 2009, even if millions of homes lack digital-reception equipment.

“Broadcasters accept that Congress will implement a 2009 hard date for the end of the analog broadcasts, and we’re ready,” National Association of Broadcasters president Edward Fritts said in testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee.

On prior occasions, the NAB has voiced general support for a hard date, especially one that took into account the needs of consumers who own 73 million analog sets, which will go dark after the deadline without set-top boxes or cable or satellite connections.

Now, the NAB is apparently going to leave it up to Congress to figure out how to keep those analog sets running. At a minimum, Congress is expected to subsidize boxes for millions of low-income viewers.

Some lawmakers know that the set-top issue is political dynamite. “If you want an uproar from the people of this country, have their TVs go off,” Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) said.

Fritts upped the ante by advising the panel that NAB members are prepared to accept “quantifiable” public-interest obligations for their multicast services -- the extra channels created by flexible use of digital spectrum.

But Fritts spoiled the event for the cable industry by insisting on mandatory cable carriage of multicast services, calling the development of hyperlocal TV services one of the greatest benefits of the digital-TV transition.

Cable has long objected to such a mandate. Testifying moments after Fritts, National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow said the NAB wanted to provoke a multicast battle with cable so that no hard-date bill passes and TV stations can retain their analog and digital licenses indefinitely.

“The most plausible interpretation is that the broadcasters hope to goad the cable industry into joining them in their passive-aggressive opposition to a hard date. Perhaps a more charitable interpretation is that they view this as one more opportunity to make a ‘land grab.’ In any event, they are making your task harder, not easier,” McSlarrow said.

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