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Iger decries Clinton’s plan, content critics

NEW YORK — ABC prexy Bob Iger let the White House know Thursday that President Clinton’s request for free airtime for political candidates will meet with stiff resistance from the broadcasting industry.

“Imposing a free time obligation on broadcasters raises serious legal issues,” said Iger, adding, “Limiting campaign spending is not an issue we can solve.” President Clinton said earlier this week that giving free time to politicians ought to be a requirement for any TV station that wants a digital TV license.

Iger used his speech to the Assn. of National Advertisers to defend his industry from Beltway attacks on its digital spectrum plans and its newly implemented program ratings system. Iger’s comments are the latest indication that a siege mentality is setting in among industry execs who find themselves increasingly in Washington’s crosshairs.

TV under fire

During the last several months, lawmakers and regulators have set their sights on everything from alcohol advertising to the voluntary program rating system that the television industry adopted in January.

As has been the case for the last two years, the extra channel every TV station needs for the transition to a digital format continues to be the leverage that lawmakers use as they make demands on the television industry. During the transition from analog to digital, every TV station will need two channels: one to continue providing their regular signal and another to provide the new digital signal.

FCC chairman Reed Hundt opened a new front last month when he accused broadcasters of trying to drag out the transition period. Hundt says one year is plenty of time to convert every owned-and-operated station to digital. Iger said Hundt’s schedule was ludicrous.

“The timetable for migration must be based on business realities and concern for the consumer, and not on budget issues or politics,” said Iger.

The faster broadcasters make the transition to digital, the faster the administration can reclaim the current frequencies and sell them at auction. The Clinton administration is counting on that sale to help balance the federal budget by 2002.

Tech advances

The digital channel will allow broadcasters to transmit, over the air, a crystal-clear picture with CD-quality sound. It may also allow them to squeeze as many as five channels from the same amount of spectrum on which now they can only offer one. In an era of increased competition from cable, satellites and maybe even telcos, broadcasters are depending on the digital airwaves to remain viable in the 21st century.

Economists have estimated that the second channels could be worth as much as $70 billion on the open market, but the government is going to lend the spectrum to broadcasters for free. The decision to hand over the spectrum gratis has angered many in Congress, who say it is only fair that broadcasters repay the loan with an expanded obligation to the public interest.

In the same speech in which he demanded free airtime for federal candidates, President Clinton announced that he has signed an executive order creating a commission to study what broadcasters’ public interest obligation should be in the digital era.

Counseling caution

But Iger counseled caution on Thursday. “We are willing to accept a commensurate obligation when we migrate to the digital world,” said Iger, adding, “However, the programming flexibility permitted by digital spectrum space is still an unknown, and until we know more, it’s premature to even consider the complex and potentially mammoth obligation to offer free time to all candidates seeking federal office.”

On the rating system, Iger lashed back at criticism from inside the Beltway. “It began before the system even went into effect, and it is politically motivated by government officials seeking to control and manage content,” which, Iger said, like the free airtime proposal, “raises serious legal issues.”

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