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B’casters score Hill wins

WASHINGTON — The House Commerce Committee voted Wednesday to weaken the ban on owning more than one TV station in a market, while also agreeing to a measure that would virtually guarantee to draw out the digital TV transition far beyond the 2006 deadline set by the FCC.

In party line votes, the Commerce Committee voted to allow TV stations to hold on to the digital and the analog channels until at least 95% of households in a given market had made the switch to digital TV. The vote was an affirmation of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee vote taken Tuesday.

The Commerce Committee’s action is at odds with a plan approved by the FCC to reclaim in 2006 the analog channels broadcasters now use. Under the FCC plan, both TV stations and consumers will rely solely on the digital channels after 2006.

Most experts expect it will take much longer than the nine years allotted by the FCC for digital TV to reach a penetration rate of 95%.

Congressional budgeteers want to reclaim the analog channels in 2006 and sell them at auction to the highest bidder. In a victory for broadcasters, the Commerce Committee voted 26-23 Wednesday to allow TV stations to participate in spectrum auctions in their own markets. The vote followed party lines, with the Republican majority carrying the day.

The decision, if it is approved by the full House, confirmed by the Senate and included in legislation signed by President Clinton, would end the decades-old ban on a broadcaster owning more than one station in a market.

In yet another victory for broadcasters and Republicans, the Commerce Committee also voted to allow local newspapers to participate in spectrum auctions in their own markets. That provision would effectively end the current ban on newspaper/TV station cross-ownership.

During the same session, the Commerce Committee struck down measures authored by Democrats which were designed to speed the digital TV transition.

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