Senators: Focus on DTV

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Key senators are trying a second time to persuade Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin to focus on the transition to digital television instead of his battles with the cable-television industry.

Martin, a Republican in charge of the FCC since early 2005, has been trying for years to get cable operators to break up their big programming packages and sell channels on an a la carte basis.

In a letter last Monday, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) told Martin that the FCC’s overriding mission, through actions undertaken by its Media Bureau, was a smooth DTV transition scheduled for Feb. 17, 2009.

“Pursuing contentious policy initiatives, such as the unbundling of wholesale subscription television channels, would divert attention of the bureau at this critical time,” Inouye said.

The letter — a copy of which was obtained by Multichannel News — was co-signed by Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). An Inouye spokesman confirmed the letter was authentic.

The letter came on the day Martin was in Wilmington, N.C., to mark the city’s early transition to all-digital TV by its local commercial stations. Wilmington agreed to be the first market to turn off its analog signals to help the FCC learn lessons that can be applied when the other 209 markets go all-digital in 162 days.

In April, Inouye and Stevens (who is under indictment for failing to report expensive gifts on Senate financial disclosures) told Martin that he had to subordinate his various wars with cable to the more pressing effort to convert all full-power TV stations to digital transmission.

A day later, Martin told reporters he wouldn’t do it, that he still wanted to press cable on the a la carte issue.

“The commission is going to continue to consider everything in the proceedings in front of us,” Martin said.

In recent weeks, Martin has denied anyone at the FCC is working on the a la carte issue, even though agency records show meetings on the subject between one of his aides and a la carte advocates, including the American Cable Association.

In their letter, the senators said the FCC’s focus on the TV transition was vital because not all stations were ready to shut off their analog transmitters and because “too many consumers” were totally unaware of the DTV transition or were uncertain about how many digital-to-analog converter boxes they would need.