Congress would consider new cable-carriage rights for digital-TV stations if private negotiations fail to produce results, House Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said Wednesday.
“We’d like to see that happen on its own. If it doesn’t happen, then Congress probably will have to step in, particularly as we look at the whole issue of the transition to digital,” Upton said on C-SPAN program Washington Journal.
Last Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission ruled 4-1 that digital-TV stations were entitled to carriage of a single programming stream. Over cable-industry objections, many local TV stations were hoping that the FCC would mandate carriage of five or six different programming streams that current digital technology allows each station to transmit.
Upton said he hoped that cable and broadcasters would conclude a multicast-carriage deal akin to the one recently announced between the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the Association of Public Television Stations.
But if no deal emerges, Congress will take up the issue, he added.
“It is something that we are going to take a serious look at. I don’t know the answer yet,” Upton said.
Cable operators currently voluntarily carry the digital signals of more than 500 digital-TV stations, largely HDTV programming. The United States has 1,366 commercial TV stations, according to the FCC.
TV stations that received free licenses for digital TV have to surrender their analog licenses by Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85% of TV households in a market have digital-reception equipment, whichever is later.
Some Capitol Hill lawmakers -- fearing that the 85% test only prolongs the transition for an unknowable period of time -- support a firm deadline for recovery of the analog spectrum, some of which is to be auctioned for billions of dollars to wireless-broadband companies.
“I want a hard date, as well, and you are going to have to convince me if we have to move that date,” Upton said. “We are going to try to do this in a very bipartisan way.”
The exact date for ending the transition has been something of a political football.
House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) supports a Dec. 31, 2006, deadline. An FCC plan -- now on the backburner with chairman Michael Powell leaving next month -- supports Dec. 31, 2008, as the deadline.
“At the end of the day, sometime probably this spring, we’ll let everybody know where the votes are and what we have to do to make sure that we can move the broadcasters totally to digital so that we can sell the analog spectrum and get so many more services that the rest of the world already has,” Upton said.
According to the National Association of Broadcasters, any digital-TV-transition deadline has to take into account the fact that consumers currently possess 73 million analog-TV sets that won’t display digital pictures without converters. Connecting $300 boxes to 73 million sets would cost $21.9 billion, according to the NAB.
It’s unclear whether 73 million sets would, in fact, end up being stranded. Some consumers would connect analog sets to cable or satellite, and others might decide to buy digital-TV sets to replace old analog receivers.
Currently, 20.5 million households rely exclusively on free, over-the-air broadcasting. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) has said that lawmakers would be committing political suicide if broadcast-only consumers were harmed by an abrupt cutoff of analog-TV service.
The universe of U.S households that are broadcast-only might shrink in the months leading up to the end of the transition.
In studying the digital-TV transition in Berlin, which ended in August 2003, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that as the deadline approached, between one-third and one-half of Berlin households that were broadcast-only reacted by subscribing to cable or satellite instead of purchasing converter boxes.