New spectrum wave

Panel: Free channels, no duopoly law

WASHINGTON — Members of the House and Senate Commerce Committees have not only agreed to lend billions of dollars of spectrum to broadcasters for free, they also have proposed sunsetting the decades-old ban on owning more than one station in a market.

The proposal, which must now be reviewed by the House and Senate budget committees, would allow broadcasters to keep both their current channel and the second digital channel until at least 85% of a market has the ability to receive a digital TV signal. If an individual market does cross the 85% digital penetration rate, the bill would allow broadcasters to purchase the extra channel at an auction.

The proposal, which would allow a powerful VHF station to purchase another VHF station in the same market, would effectively end the ban on duopoly once broadcasters make the switch to digital service.

The duopoly ban would only be lifted in large markets. On Monday, negotiations were still hung up over the definition of a large market, although one draft of the legislation said the line would be drawn at markets with 500,000 people. Others want to allow duopoly in markets as small as 400,000.

Minor concession

In one concession, broadcasters agreed to hand over much of the spectrum they now use for Electronic News Gathering, which includes the local broadcast of live sporting events and on remote news shots.

Nonetheless, network lobbyists were pleased with the result of the latest round of negotiations. “We are very optimistic,” said one network source.

Win for lobbyists

The lobbyists successfully fought off efforts by the White House to charge broadcasters rent for the use of the valuable airwaves. In addition, the White House wanted firm language from broadcasters which would essentially force the industry to complete the switch to digital TV by 2006. The White House wants to reclaim the current channel in eight years so it can be sold at auction.

But the current proposal, which allows broadcasters to hold on the channel until 85% of a market has a digital TV set, a digital converter box or access to a subscription service that provides local channels, effectively guarantees that most TV stations in the country will operate both an analog and a digital signal for at least 15 years.

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