Bill sets drop-dead digital deadline

Legislation requires new TVs come with tech to block Net

WASHINGTON — Americans who don’t want to spend their holiday money on an expensive digital TV set will get more than just a little static when they tune in to watch New Year’s festivities on Jan. 1, 2007 –they won’t get any signal at all.

Dropping a bombshell on the TV biz, key Capitol Hill pols on Thursday released draft legislation ordering TV stations to vacate the analog airwaves and begin broadcasting only in digital by Dec. 31, 2006, no exceptions.

As it stands now, the broadcast biz doesn’t have to worry about switching to digital until 85% of the country is capable of receiving the new signal, which isn’t predicted to happen for many years to come.

The bill drafted by Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.) and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who head up the influential House Commerce Committee, would erase the 85% caveat from the books of the Federal Communications Commission. The target date has always been Dec. 31, 2006.

Tauzin’s checkmate move is designed to prove that Capitol Hill has the power and the will to make broadcasters live up to the digital promise. It’s doubtful such a provision would actually clear Congress, but the threat of such legislation could be enough to convince various sectors of the TV that it’s time to stop infighting and make the transition happen.

“While we prefer marketplace solutions, clearly it is time for us to provide leadership in this area,” Tauzin said in a statement.

Hearing set for Wednesday

The legislation will be publicly debated at a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday. NBC topper Bob Wright is among those tentatively skedded to testify.

TV lobbyists were frank in saying they were caught off guard by the Dec. 31, 2006, ultimatum, which Tauzin described as pro-consumer.

But a broadcast industry insider said there is nothing more anti-consumer than pulling the plug on analog television, regardless of whether most Americans have digital sets.

“What it means is that if you still rely on analog television for your service — which 99% of all Americans do — you will wake up on Jan. 1, 2007, and your TV set will be junk metal,” the exec said.

Legislation was the hot read across town, from the Motion Picture Assn. of America to the Consumer Electronics Assn. to the National Assn. of Broadcasters.

There are a number of other sticking points addressed in the draft bill, which requires the consumer electronics biz to begin including digital tuners in sets per a timetable recently established by the FCC.

Blocks Web access

The Tauzin/Dingell legislation also backs up the FCC in requiring TV set makers to include technology blocking digital TV from being hooked up to the Internet. Hollywood has been pushing hard for the broadcast flag technology.

Tauzin and Dingell avoided the controversial question of whether cablers should be forced to carry more than one digital signal per station. In the digital world, a TV station can opt to broadcast one hi-def signal, or use the spectrum to multicast.

The National Cable and Telecom Assn. was the only group to publicly comment on the bill.

“We look forward to working with the committee as it considers the staff draft and ways to resolve the many complex issues involved,” NCTA prexy-CEO Robert Sachs said. “At the same time, we will continue to work to achieve inter-industry solutions to as many of these issues as possible.”

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