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Broadcasters Are Pressing Lawmakers to Delay Digital TV

Technology: House panel OKs amendment to extend the 2006 deadline for phasing out analog channels.


Balking at the multibillion-dollar cost of deploying digital television, disgruntled broadcasters this week are quietly making last-ditch appeals to Congress and federal regulators to delay introduction of the eagerly awaited technology.

On Wednesday, the House Commerce Committee passed a budget amendment allowing broadcasters to keep their current analog channels past the 2006 deadline, set in April by the Federal Communications Commission, in markets where 5% or more of households still have analog sets.

Earlier this week, a House panel defeated a provision that would have required all new TV sets to have digital capability starting July 1, 2001.

Meanwhile, nearly 100 television stations--including all 22 stations owned and operated by the Fox Network and 11 owned by NBC--are expected to ask the FCC on Friday to reconsider digital TV channel allotments. The station owners contend that the new channel assignments will sharply curtail their TV signals, resulting in the loss of millions of viewers.

KNBC-TV Channel 4 in Los Angeles, which stands to lose access to 400,000 viewers during the digital TV transition, and other stations want to level the playing field by asking the FCC to change transmitter power levels and authorize more TV towers to recapture the lost viewers.

"There are definitely [digital signal] areas that the FCC is going to have to do something about," said Gerald J. Waldron, an attorney who serves as Washington counsel for the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance.

The moves by broadcasters represent a significant setback for digital TV, a technology that offers ultra-sharp pictures and compact disc-quality sound, experts say.

"There is no incentive to roll out digital TV quickly or at all if you don't have to give back the second block of" channels, said Gigi Sohn, executive director of Media Access Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group on communications issues. "We are simply not going to create market demand [for digital TV] if these proposals go through."

But the sponsor of the amendment to grant broadcasters extra time to transition to digital TV was unapologetic.

"Congress is not about to order lights out on analog broadcasting while there is a significant segment of the American public capable of receiving it," said Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House telecommunications and finance subcommittee.

Hopes were high for a quick transition to digital TV after the four television networks told the FCC in April that they would begin offering the service within 18 months at 23 of their owned and operated stations in the top 10 markets, which include Los Angeles.

The technology got a boost Monday when software giant Microsoft Corp., in an effort to speed development of digital television, said it will invest $1 billion in one of the nation's largest cable television companies, Comcast. A day later, Home Box Office broke ranks with other cable TV programmers and said it will offer digital high-definition programming in the summer of 1998.

While some broadcasters said they are moving ahead, others have been put off by the $1-million to $3-million price tag of converting a television station to handle digital broadcasts.

A spokesman for Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris Corp., the leading supplier of television broadcasting equipment, said Wednesday that it has signed contracts with CBS, Tribune Broadcasting, Cox Broadcasting and other station owners to deliver almost 500 new digital transmitters. But that figure represents less than a third of the nation's 1,600 television outlets. Industry officials say many small stations have not even begun initial steps for conversion to the new digital format.

Experts say it could take the FCC the remainder of the summer to complete its rulings on digital TV channel assignments, with court appeals likely to follow.

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