WASHINGTON -A key lawmaker last week suggested that Congress might firm up the infamously loose 2006 deadline for broadcasters to convert to digital transmission.
At a March 15 hearing of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the full House Commerce Committee, said he would be willing to explore a "hard deadline" to force broadcasters to give up their analog spectrum in 2006, provided consumers could purchase digital TV components "at reasonable and declining costs."
Under current law, the deadline would be pushed back if fewer than 85 percent of homes didn't have digital receivers by that time.
"I am concerned that this soft deadline is thwarting a certain and swift transition to digital," Tauzin said.
Meanwhile, the panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, suggested that Congress mandate digital must-carry and dual digital-analog tuners in new TV sets.
"We're going to have to take action to get this started," he said.
At issue are lingering disputes over cable carriage of digital signals, equipment compatibility and digital copyright protection. Panelists representing cable, broadcast and consumer-electronics interests blamed each other for the delays, evoking frustration from subcommittee members.
"The only place I've ever seen HDTV is in the hearing room or on the convention floor," said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.). She warned that legislation could be necessary if the current situation persists.
CBS Television Network executive vice president Martin Franks urged members to favor "jawboning" over legislation.
"I'm not sure legislation is as necessary as just staying on our backs," he said. "Government is very good at that. It's amazing how you're able to get our attention when you want to."
Markey said that while "jawboning might help," it won't get results as quickly as legislation. "We need to come together on this," he pleaded.
But Insight Communications Co. CEO Michael Willner said digital must-carry would "take the risk out of [broadcasters'] business and remove their burden of developing innovative digital programming" while forcing cable operators to drop other channels that might be more desirable to consumers.
"Double must-carry would be at the expense of new and innovative programs consumers want today," he said. "Our customers don't want redundant versions of existing programming."
For small operators with limited access to capital, digital must-carry could delay high-speed-data deployments in rural areas, testified Steven Weed, president of Millennium Digital Media's northwest region and chairman of the American Cable Association.
"It would put a huge cost on independent cable that would have to be passed through to our customers," he said. "Broadcast digital should not be forced into the market before the market is ready."