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Digital-delay fray

FROM WEEKLY
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is used to being the lone wolf, particularly when it comes to broadcasters and the digital TV debacle.

Last week, McCain seemed downright resigned to the inevitable after holding a tense congressional hearing on the digital transition. He rode broadcasters hard, prodding them until they admitted, yes it’s true, the 2006 deadline won’t be met.

“There’s not a snowball’s chance in Gila Bend, Ariz., that we’ll be on track,” McCain said.

McCain, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, has fumed ever since Congress gave broadcasters $70 billion worth of digital spectrum — at no charge. In turn, broadcasters were to give back the analog spectrum, worth billions of dollars.

Broadcasters say they aren’t to blame for the troubled transition. For one, digital TV equipment is not compatible or even available, due, at least in part, to an ongoing debate over encryption technology.

Many of McCain’s colleagues continue to sympathize with broadcasters.

On March 2,a handful of influential lawmakers sent a letter to FCC chairman Michael Powell urging the agency to intervene regarding encryption and digital TV.

The two-page letter supports the premise that high-value programming aired on broadcast be copy-protected, in addition to copy protecting cable programming.

Among those signing the two-page letter were Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.), chair of the House Commerce Committee; Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chair of a telecommunications subcommittee; Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.); Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.); Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.);

In the Senate, signees included Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.); John Breaux (R-La.); Conrad Burns (R-Mont.); and Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.). All are members of McCain’s Commerce Committee.

The letter also pushes technology that would prevent digital programming being uploaded to the Internet.

“We are writing to raise our very serious concerns about a matter that could slow the transition to digital television and undermine localism, and the future of free, over-the-air television,” the letter stated.

Hollywood studios — firmly entrenched in TV programming — are fighting hard on the copy protection front.

Unlike present VCR systems, a copy of a movie aired over digital TV will be near-perfect — a bonanza for pirates. Hence, studios want copy protection in place.

Broadcasters’ wish list doesn’t end there.

Instead of using the digital spectrum to beam one high-def channel, broadcasters are now warming to the idea of using the extra bandwidth to multi-cast up to six channels. If that’s the case, cablers should be forced to carry a broadcaster’s multiple digital channels.

Thanks, but no thanks, cablers told McCain’s committee.

“Cable is not seeking to hamstring a competitor or to blame anyone. We simply don’t want to be the scapegoats for broadcasters’ problems,” Insight Communications prexy-CEO Michael Willner told the senators. He testified on behalf of the National Cable Telecommunications Assn. (NCTA).

McCain’s assessment: that broadcasters could get much of what they want, including an extension of the 2006 deadline. “I can assure you they have the sufficient clout.”

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