Digital stall in pols’ court now

B'cast 'flag' tech flack pushes solons to set deadline

WASHINGTON — The stalled digital TV transition has landed squarely in the lap of Congress.

With talks between the computer biz, TV manufacturers and Hollywood reps languishing, exasperated lawmakers Monday said they will craft sweeping legislation addressing the squabbles holding up the much-anticipated shift.

Reps. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) said they will introduce an omnibus bill in September if the various industries are unable to hammer out their differences in private. Tauzin chairs the House Commerce committee, while Dingell is the panel’s top Democrat.

“We have simply drawn a line in the sand — either get these agreements in place before September, or else the legislation,” said Tauzin top aide Ken Johnson.

Tauzin and Dingell made their announcement after learning that talks between Hollywood and Silicon Valley were still stalled over broadcast “flag” technology that would stop digital TV from being hooked up to the Internet.

The flag is one of the least controversial subjects when it comes to the tense negotiations between the movie biz and computer makers over copy protection technologies.

The legislation proposed by the bipartisan duo would go far beyond just the broadcast flag, or other copy protection matters. It would affect virtually all sectors of the TV biz –cablers, broadcasters and consumer electronics companies. It would tackle the issue of digital TV tuners, as well as equipment compatibility between set-top boxes and sets.

Legislation also would address whether cablers must be made to carry all digital signals, a point of fierce contention between the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. and the National Assn. of Broadcasters.

“Everyone is on the edge of the cliff, but no one wants to jump in the water,” Tauzin told reporters.

Competing interests

The difficult negotiations regarding the broadcast flag underscore the competing interests of Hollywood studios and computer makers.

Studios want to ensure that movies and programs aired on digital TV can’t be uploaded to the Internet, where they could be downloaded from peer-to-peer Web sites.

But Silicon Valley and the consumer electronics biz say Hollywood must not be allowed to control and restrict the Internet.

Over the weekend, top computer toppers sent a letter to studio chieftains urging that they let the marketplace, rather than legislative mandates, decide copy protection issues.

But TV industry leaders, including broadcasters, may well have persuaded pols such as Tauzin and Dingell that it is time to intervene.

Motion Picture Assn. of America Jack Valenti, part of the multi-industry group personally briefing Tauzin Monday on the broadcast flag, credited the lawmaker for his involvement and said the parties are “near the edge of agreement” on the broadcast flag.

“We hope to resolve these remaining matters in the very near-term so that we can move forward with implementing the broadcast flag as expeditiously as possible,” Valenti said.

Praise from holdout

Philips Consumer Electronics, one of the holdouts on the broadcast flag, also commended Tauzin and Dingell.

“Philips believes such an approach will ensure that consumers enjoy the full benefits of broadcast digital content,” said its chair-CEO Lawrence Blanford.

The Consumer Federation of America on Monday joined in the debate and sent a letter to Capitol Hill solons urging that they keep the consumer in mind when considering copy protection matters. They also called for extensive congressional hearings.

“Only through such a process will members of Congress and the public at large be able to consider the important ramifications of any approach to impose restrictions on consumers’ ability to enjoy the full benefit of broadcast digital content,” the federation wrote.

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