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Lawmakers Tuning In to New Media Issues

Technology: From file sharing to digital TV, members of Congress are pushing bills that would affect everyday lives of Americans.


WASHINGTON — Rep. Howard L. Berman has a daughter who's a big fan of downloading music online, but the Mission Hills Democrat is sponsoring a bill that might block file-swapping.

Then there's Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R.-La.), who was so mesmerized by the crystalline images of a high-definition TV Super Bowl broadcast that he's pushing the nation to adopt digital television, a costly transition that would require millions of Americans to replace their TV sets.

And Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) made a fan of Walt Disney Co. by introducing a bill requiring anti-piracy devices in new technology, but he's the entertainment industry's staunchest foe in blocking big media mergers.

As Hollywood starts to take center stage again in Washington, lawmakers--for different reasons--are promoting legislation that would have a significant effect on consumers' everyday activities, including buying TVs, taping favorite programs and downloading songs. Unlike past congressional efforts that centered on complaints about sex and violence in movies and songs, the current battles concern more arcane topics, such as analog versus digital TV or copyright infringement.

Although entertainment issues can lead to more headlines and fatter campaign chests, messing with Americans' television sets or restricting how they use their computers is fraught with political risk.

Tauzin, who as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has tackled Enron Corp. and energy reform, is facing one of his biggest gambles in an effort to push the nation toward digital TV. After criticism two weeks ago about the potential cost to consumers, the lawmaker distanced himself somewhat from a proposal, written by his staff, that would have required consumers to buy expensive digital TVs or obtain converter boxes to keep their current sets working after Dec. 31, 2006.

"There's no more dangerous place in America than getting between an American consumer and his television set," Tauzin said.

When Berman returned home this summer to find out what constituents were thinking, he was surprised to learn that outrage over his file-sharing bill was as strong, and sometimes stronger, than concerns about a possible invasion of Iraq.

"I knew this would be a controversial idea and I liked that," Berman said. "But I've been surprised at how the bill has been mischaracterized."

Lure of a Challenge

Despite the risks, politicians find entertainment-related issues hard to resist, in part because they strike a chord with voters.

"The risk is there can be repercussions if your name is attached to a plan that has gone awry," said Andy Spahn, who was an aide to former Sens. Gary Hart of Colorado and Alan Cranston of California and now handles political affairs for DreamWorks SKG. "But if you demonstrate leadership and effectiveness, it's something you can campaign on."

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) has established himself as a dependable ally of technology companies and their customers. But he faces fierce opposition from a wide array of entertainment and publishing companies for his proposed Digital Media Consumer Rights Act, which would strengthen consumer rights to make copies of songs and movies.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) is one of the architects of a 1998 law intended to make the Internet safe for copyright holders and new digital distribution businesses. The law has helped record companies in their fight against piracy, but Hatch isn't in the labels' corner now. For two years he has prodded them to embrace the Internet and treat artists better by avoiding exploitative contracts and irregular accounting for royalties. And he's losing patience.

Lawmakers probably won't pass any laws related to entertainment or media until next year. But behind-the-scenes work, lobbying and bill-drafting are underway.

Tauzin said he realized the potential for digital television while attending a Super Bowl game as a guest of Disney. During important plays, he would watch a 50-inch high-definition TV set in the luxury box rather than watch the live action.

"The picture was so much better," said Tauzin, a self-described TV addict who now has his own digital set.

Tauzin is preparing to introduce a bill that would speed the rollout of digital TV, a technology that promises richly detailed pictures, CD-quality sound and dozens of extra channels. He adopted the digital TV cause when it became clear that the major TV industries would miss the 2006 digital conversion date that was set in a 1996 law he helped write.

Getting TVs to move at "computer speed" is vital for the nation, Tauzin said, and will help spur the rollout of high-speed Internet access.

"Television has to migrate to digital," Tauzin said.

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