Key House members are about to make the walk from talk to action on the transition to digital television.
Upset that months of negotiations have borne no fruit, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) is planning to introduce legislation in September on a range of digital TV transition issues, including cable carriage of local broadcasters.
Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson last week issued a caveat that the bill would be shelved if all parties involved were able to reach a voluntary agreement over the next few weeks.
Given that key industries have been at loggerheads for years, chances of a near-term breakthrough don't look promising.
'STUCK IN MUD'
Johnson said that because many DTV transition issues remain "stuck in the mud," legislation is needed in the absence of a broad industry accord.
He said Tauzin was planning to offer a "bipartisan, omnibus digital television bill" that would address cable carriage of digital broadcast signals; digital cable compatibility with DTV sets; inclusion of off-air DTV tuners in digital sets; copyright protection of digital content; and TV station pass through of network-generated high-definition programming.
"It will be a comprehensive bill," Johnson said. "Some of these issues can be peeled off if they are resolved before September."
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) is expected to partner with Tauzin on the legislation. An aide to Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said the lawmaker needed to review the bill before making a commitment to sign on as a co-sponsor.
Because cable is not required by the Federal Communications Commission to carry both analog and digital-TV signals during the transition to digital-only broadcasting, the legislation would likely address that situation in some fashion.
Under a DTV program developed by FCC chairman Michael Powell in April, the 10 largest cable companies agreed to carry up to five channels of high-definition programming by Jan. 1, 2003 on their high-capacity systems in the top 100 markets. But those channels can be a mix of cable and broadcast programming.
National Cable & Telecommunications Association spokesman Marc Osgoode Smith would not comment on Tauzin's legislation.
"It would be inappropriate for us to comment on something we have yet to see."
The National Association of Broadcasters has complained for years that the transition to DTV will fail unless TV set makers are forced to include off-air DTV tuners in nearly all new sets; digital cable systems are designed to work with DTV receivers on a plug-and-play basis; and cable operators are required to carry digital and analog signals simultaneously for the duration of the transition.
With little to no progress to show on its key issues, NAB president Edward O. Fritts was blunt last week: "It's time to legislate."
TIMING MAKES IFFY
If introduced in September, Tauzin's legislation is not expected to go far, mainly because Congress is expected to adjourn a few weeks later to campaign for re-election. Moreover, if Democrats win the House — they need to make up just six seats — Tauzin would lose both his committee chairmanship and considerable influence over the terms and timing of the legislation.
In his plan, Powell called on the consumer electronics industry to include off-air DTV tuners in nearly all new TV sets by Dec. 31, 2006. But on July 12, the Consumer Electronics Association declined to embrace his proposal.
CEA president Gary Shapiro told Powell in a letter that the digital-TV-tuner mandate would run up the per-unit price due to a government action that would disrupt market forces that appear to be working.
"It would not serve consumers to require every digital- and analog-television-set buyer to pay up to $400 for the over-the-air reception that the overwhelming majority of Americans don't need, use or want," Shapiro said.
Powell issued a statement expressing disappointment with Shapiro's response.
"The CE [consumer-electronics] industry's response on DTV tuners is so limited and loaded down with so many conditions that I believe it amounts to no commitment at all," Powell said in a prepared statement Friday.
Powell's plan did not address the copy protection and cable-DTV set compatibility issues. Tauzin had urged the industries to adopt a policy by July 15 on the protection of digital broadcast programming but no agreement was announced.
"We are near the edge of an agreement … and we are anxious to avoid further delay," president of the Motion Picture Association Jack Valenti said on July 15.