San Francisco— Support in the House for cutting off analog broadcasting by the end of 2006 is waning, House aides said last week.
Lawmakers are now looking at Dec. 31, 2007 as the earliest date for ending the digital transition, one House source said.
House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) favors Dec. 31, 2006 as the deadline. But his target puts enormous pressure on Congress to find a quick solution for 73 million analog TV sets that rely exclusively on free, over-the-air TV and would go dark without a set-top box or a connection to cable or satellite television.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who serves on Barton’s committee, said she supports a firm deadline but not if Congress failed to ensure that millions of TV sets did not become “a piece of junk and [don’t] function anymore.”
Barton, who plans to introduce the bill soon, has said the precise terms of the legislation wouldn’t be known until he had completed talks with Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.).
At recent hearings, some House members voiced support for a hard date, while remaining noncommittal on some of the details, such as whether cable companies should be allowed to convert digital broadcast signals to analog at cable system headends.
Another issue needing clarity is whether spectrum auction proceeds should be used to subsidize a set-top for every analog TV set not connected to a pay service or just one set-top per broadcast-only home that meets certain annual income criteria.
House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Eshoo, speaking here last Monday, said they did not support set-top subsidies.
Cable is seeking authority for headend conversion because operators do not want to force millions of subscribers to lease set-tops to view local digital TV signals on their analog sets.
Neil Fried, a House lawyer who works for Barton, said headend conversion would likely mean a seamless transition for 73 million cable subscribers.
“The nice thing about that is that no new devices need to be pushed into the majority of those consumers’ homes,” Fried said. “The problem, however, is that many members are going to be nervous — how does that work, what does that do to analog television owner, what does that do to a high definition television owner?”
The National Association of Broadcasters has argued that headend conversion is the wrong policy because consumers who have paid thousand of dollars for HDTV sets would receive analog signals over cable.
But Insight Communications Co. CEO Michael Willner said cable consumers currently receiving local TV signals in HD would continue to do so even if those signals are converted to analog to accommodate consumers that have not upgraded to digital.
While cable has said it is prepared to respond to a firm transition deadline, the NAB believes that 2006 is too soon and doesn’t give consumers enough time to purchase DTV sets.
Moreover, the NAB has pointed out that the Federal Communications Commission deadline for the inclusion of over-the-air DTV tuners in nearly all new TV sets does not take full effect until July 2007, six months after Barton would end the transition.
Minimizing consumer disruption was critical, Sensenbrenner said. “When we are talking about the transition to digital, let’s not forget about the consumers, because if all of a sudden consumers are going to have to pay out a lot of money in order to get good cable or good over-the-air TV or a good satellite signal, they are going to resist that,” he said.
Under current law, the transition doesn’t end until 85% of TV households in a market can receive local DTV signals, either through a digital set or a pay-TV service. Barton has called this a “soft deadline” with no uniform, predictable end to the transition.
Sensenbrenner said he supported a deadline with no ambiguity.
'SET AND ENFORCED’
“I do think there’s got to be a deadline set and enforced,” he said. “It seems to me that the deadline should be reasonable and once the deadline is set, everybody should realize that’s it.”
Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.), who serves on Barton’s committee, predicted Barton would craft a bill acceptable to the committee. “It’s a high priority. We’re doing it this year,” said Randanovich, who attended the National Show.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), an Energy and Commerce member who toured the National Show floor here last Sunday with Radanovich, said she believed that consumer disruption would not result from a new DTV transition law.
“I think that once we decide on what the date is going to be, from what we’ve heard people will get in gear and make it happen,” Blackburn said.