Wiley: Smooth Shift to DTV


Former FCC chairman and prominent Washington communications attorney Richard Wiley last week predicted relatively smooth sailing for the digital conversion next February and generally painted a measured picture for the incoming Democratic-led commission that many believe could be more regulatory minded and generally tougher on broadcasters.

Wiley, a Republican who served as agency chairman during the 1970s under the Gerald Ford Administration, shares few of the activist proclivities of some media activists, but said, “I see more regulation, frankly.”

But he said that President-elect Barack Obama faces overwhelming economic problems, so he may not fight many major communications battles at the start of his administration.

Wiley made his remarks during the inaugural Broadcasting & Cable-Multichannel News OnScreen Media Summit here last Tuesday afternoon in an interview session with MCN Washington news editor Ted Hearn.

Wiley did express alarm over the so-called white-spaces issue, in which the FCC will give vacant space between TV stations to unlicensed users. While he said the potential sounds exciting, “I’d have some concerns there are going to be some real problems for stations out there.” For the sake of them, he said, “I don’t think we want to lose the wonder of the broadcasting industry” to the uncertainty over white-space issues.

Now the managing partner at Wiley Rein in Washington, he predicted the digital transition won’t be the nightmare some predict, based on the small number of people likely to be impacted in February.

And, he said, whatever problems there will be, the hassle won’t last longer than a few days for older, more technologically challenged consumers.

“It’s not like we’re shutting off their electricity,” he said. “We’re not taking away their food. I think within a week or so we can have this problem solved.”

Wiley said there is a need to do more to reach people who have yet to prepare for the transition.

He endorsed TV stations that are conducting “soft cutoffs,” which involve the interruption of regular programming to display short messages about obtaining a digital signal after the analog cutoff.

He called on Congress to pass legislation that would allow some analog TV stations to remain on the air for a few weeks after Feb. 17 to broadcast solely emergency information and details about the DTV transition.

“If Congress passes this new legislation, we might get a few more weeks to inform the public,” Wiley said.

He warned that Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), new chairmen of committees with significant influence on media issues, may be tough on the media. Waxman is “going to be a very vigorous chairman, very aggressive,” pointing out Waxman’s interest in restricting advertising for prescription drugs, advertising to children and product placement. Rockefeller, he said, will have a lot to say about who may be approved as FCC chairman.

Wiley took the middle ground relative to broadcasters and cable operators reaching a compromise on the grace period both want to limit cable retransmission-consent negotiations around the time of the transition, to prevent even more consumer confusion.

Cable companies want to stop the clock earlier than broadcasters, so that some stations don’t use holding back the Super Bowl from a cable operator to extract an agreement. Wiley predicted a compromise date would be reached.