Reed Hundt last week took broadcasters to task for endorsing government mandated minimum high definition TV requirements. The FCC chairman also for the first time raised the specter of auctioning off digital broadcast spectrum.

Speaking before the Intl. Radio & Television Society in New York, Hundt lambasted the notion that government should order TV stations to carry HDTV programming. His comments came after a group of 96 broadcasters- including the Big Three and Fox – told the FCC they would not fight a five-hour-per-week HDTV programming requirement.

Hundt said he was “startled to see industry asking for an unprecedented level of regulatory micromanagement.” The FCC honcho mocked the recommendation for “HDTV quotas” by calling it “the digital TV equivalent of ordering the New York Times to publish just one 22-page section on high-gloss paper instead of the four sections in today’s newspaper.”

“Putting aside the question of whether that’s constitutional, does it make any sense?” asked Hundt. “Why should the FCC substitute its judgment for the judgment of the marketplace?”

Hundt’s sharply worded attack on HDTV minimums is a sign the Federal Communications Commission chairman is prepared to do battle with broadcasters on a front that’s critical to the fate of free TV: the transition from analog to digital delivery of programming.

Broadcasters remain badly split on whether a minimal HDTV requirement should be included as a component of the shift to digital. The National Assn. of Broadcasters, for example, was a signatory to the filing at the FCC in which the 96 broadcasters said they wouldn’t fight the five-hour minimum. Yet the NAB curiously filed separate comments telling the FCC that “fixed rules about minimum quantity of HDTV are simply unwarranted.”

Hundt also told the IRTS crowd that he backs a decision by Congress to include in budget-balancing legislation lingo that requires the FCC to report to lawmakers on whether spectrum auctions are warranted.

Hundt’s comments are likely to cause further angst on the part of broadcasters, who have privately accused the FCC chairman of stirring up support for spectrum auctions on Capitol Hill. Broadcasters claim Hundt has targeted them because of their stiff opposition to his call for FCC-mandated kidvid educational program quotas.

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