McCain pleads to b-casters to ditch analog by 2009

WASHINGTON — While terrorism continues to make gruesome headlines on the nightly TV news, it is also having a profound impact on the broadcasting biz.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) today is skedded to move a bill setting a Jan. 1, 2009, deadline for broadcasters to give up their analog spectrum in favor of digital. The legislation is an effort to act on a 9/11 Commission recommendation to free up coveted airwaves so firefighters, the police and other first responders can communicate during an emergency.

But the powerful lobbying force of the National Assn. of Broadcasters believes the commission’s directives are overheated. It says the directives do nothing to address the biggest argument against a drop-dead date for the transition: that many in the viewing public have yet to buy digital TVs.

Congressional Republican leaders are getting an earful from the NAB and other corporate interests eyeing the profitable airwaves, and appear reluctant to tackle the issue despite McCain’s drive to speed up the transition. One House GOP aide familiar with the efforts to respond to the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations before the presidential election worried that imposing a 2009 deadline could encourage too many corporate interests to start lobbying and complicate the larger, must-pass 9/11 Commission bill.

The GOP leaders’ hesitancy has done nothing to curb McCain’s enthusiasm for the deadline. He advocates acting on all the commission’s recommendations as soon as possible, casting the debate as a matter of life and death: He even called the bill “Spectrum Availability for Emergency Response and Law Enforcement to Improve Vital Emergency Service,” or the SAVE LIVES Act.

“This is a promise Congress has yet to deliver to our nation’s first responders,” McCain said Tuesday in his introductory remarks on the bill. “Now is the time for congressional action before another national emergency or crisis takes place.”

The legislation would impose a firm deadline instead of relying on a 1997 Federal Communication Commission law requiring broadcasters to return a second television channel by 2006 or when 85% of Americans can receive digital broadcasts.

McCain is attempting to address the NAB’s concerns by proposing a $1 billion subsidy for digital TV converter boxes for those consumers who do not purchase a new TV by the 2009 deadline. Legislation would also require analog TV sets sold after Sept. 30, 2005, to carry a label telling consumers the sets can’t pick up digital signals.

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