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Bill to enforce digital TV rules

A Senate bill would require broadcasters to adhere to a timetable for digital TV standards set by the FCC.

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A bill introduced in the Senate today would require broadcasters to adhere to a timetable for digital TV standards set recently by the Federal Communications Commission.

Sen. John McCain's (R-Arizona) Digital TV Conversion Act is intended to ensure the transition from analog to digital broadcasts "as quickly as conditions will reasonably allow," according to his office.

If it were to become law, the bill would codify the FCC's schedule for digital TV by requiring the four largest commercial broadcast networks and their affiliates serving the ten largest markets to provide digital programming no later than May 1, 1999. In addition, licensees of commercial TV stations converting to digital broadcasting would have to relinquish any analog spectrum assigned to them no later than January 1, 2006.

The rules adopted by the FCC April 22 do not set strict timelines or deadlines for broadcasters' conversion to the new TV signals. "We cannot be lax in our duty to guarantee that consumers enjoy both the telecommunications benefits of digital television and the economic benefits of the analog channels' auction revenues," McCain said in statement.

Other than FCC target dates for digital TV signal rollouts, there are no binding commitments for it from more than 90 percent of all television stations, nor are there rules regarding the returning of current analog channels.

"The FCC had no rule regarding the analog channel giveback. In the unlikely event that digital does not catch on, Congress can make that change," said Pia Pialorsi, press secretary for the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which is chaired by McCain and oversees the FCC.

Pialorsi and other representatives for the committee and McCain were quick to dispel any notion of recalcitrance from broadcasters as motivation for the bill. A recent report from entertainment trade publication Variety stated that Arnold Kleiner, president and general manager at Disney-owned KABC-TV, said "not a single broadcaster in the country" wanted to ramp up equipment for the new signals. "It's going to be really expensive, and it won't increase ratings or revenues."

The bill does allow for waivers from stations that cannot meet the digital conversion date. However, it includes no language or provisions that clarify what would happen to those that do not adhere to the digital TV upgrade schedule.

One explanation for this is that broadcasters employ the some of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, such as the National Association of Broadcasters.

"When the FCC promulgated the rules, everyone applauded," said Mark Busey, policy director for McCain's committee. "If we had sought to add rules...we would jeopardize moving this bill, because broadcasters would say, 'That's not what we agreed to do.' Should this bill move, obviously if there are legitimate issues or clarification that is necessary, that's something we would seek to address."

Busey added that the bill was a "work in progress" and that there were questions that needed to be answered through discussions with broadcasters. For instance, auctions of the existing analog TV signals are scheduled to take place in 2002, yet it's not clear what would happen if the spectrum isn't returned after a new buyer has paid for it.

It could take two or three months for the bill to weave through the legislative process, according to Pialorsi. "Broadcasters have already agreed [to the FCC rules]. There shouldn't be any trouble on this," she said.

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