WASHINGTON — Members of the House and Senate Commerce Committees are expected to sign off on a budget plan today that will allow broadcasters to borrow billions of dollars worth of spectrum for free with a promise of further ownership deregulation once the TV industry completes the transition to digital service.
The bill would not only end the ban on owning more than one TV station in a market, it would also eliminate the ban on owning both a newspaper and a TV station in the same market. In both cases, the ownership bans will not be taken off the books until broadcasters are ready to give up their current analog TV service. The deregulation only applies in cities with populations larger than 400,000.
But the deregulatory provisions are raising the ire of public interest groups. “These provisions are completely inappropriate for a budget bill,” said the Media Access Project’s Gigi Sohn, adding, “They are overruling the FCC and the law of the land in the dead of the night and it’s not fair to the American public.”
Not in clear yet
With approval from the commerce committees imminent, broadcasters still need the final OK from congressional budget committees. Industry lobbyists also face a showdown with the White House, which supports a tougher approach to the digital TV spectrum, including the possibility of actually charging interest for the spectrum loan.
The support of influential lawmakers such as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and House Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.), gives the industry great confidence that they will get what they want. “There are not going to be spectrum fees,” said one lobbyist.
The terms of the loan are certainly enviable. For instance, in addition to being interest-free, there is no firm deadline for returning the borrowed airwaves to the government. Although the current bill suggests that broadcasters should complete the transition to digital television by 2006, it also instructs the Federal Communications Commission to give TV stations an extension if less than 85% of a market’s population does not have the ability to receive a digital signal. The provision virtually guarantees that most markets will have both analog and digital service until well into the next century.
In one of their few concessions, broadcasters agreed to give up the microwave spectrum they now use for Electronic News Gathering, which includes live sporting events and remote news shots. Federal airwave managers say they can move the broadcasters’ ENG operations to another portion of the radio band which is less valuable.