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Digital TV and a Democratic Congress

November 10, 2006

With the latest communications act mired in the Senate (S.2686, the mother-of-all-bills) and having no chance of being passed before the legislators pack up and go home next month, the new Democratically controlled Congress will have the opportunity to revisit a number of pending DTV actions.

Just what might they do differently?

While I was happy to see a change in leadership, hoping there might be a trend away from political devisiveness toward constructive good government (i.e. cooperative problem solving), I'm not holding my breath on digital TV issues.

Why? As at least one commentator noted during election coverage, party leadership tends to be more extreme than members at large. The moderates who were swept in this past week will not be the ones controlling legislation. What we need is new blood at the top.

TV issues are the perview of the Senate Commerce Committee, and in the House of Representatives, the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Senate committee has been chaired by Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska. He'll be 83 on November 18. He's been in the Senate for 37 years, and in Washington in political positions since 1956. His leadership at digital TV hearings that I've watched has been characterized by arrogance, intolerance, and bullying -- slash and burn tactics.

He's dismissed legislative provisions that would have educated consumers on the transition, and ignored other provisions that would have cleared up various other transition technical issues. Instead, he's focused on maximizing the revenue that will be generated by the auction of bandwidth that will be freed up when broadcasters give up their analog channels.

Stevens chose that criterion alone (maximizing revenue) in choosing a date to end the transition, not when would be best for the public.

Will I be happy to see him go? Sure, but he'll still be there. His presumed successor will be the present ranking minority member of the committee, Daniel Inouye (R - Hawaii). Inouye and Stevens have shared chairmanship for many, many years, in a unique arrangement. Whoever's party is in power is the "Chairman" and the other is the "Co-Chairman."

Not like that in other committees. They have a partnership. They work out positions in private and show up at committee meetings with everything worked out -- no real need for debate.

Like Stevens, Inouye is in his 80s (82). He's the third most senior senator. He's been a member of Congress since 1959.

I'm not expecting a lot of new ideas from the Senate next year.

Over on the other side of the Hill, there will be changes, but perhaps not for the better.

The incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is John Dingell (D - Michigan). Dingell is 80 years old, with tendencies toward the exteme left. He's been a member of the House for more than 50 years. He first took office when his Congressman father died; Dingell inherited his father's vacant seat. He was just 29.

As with some other very senior members of Congress, I've noticed in the unscripted portions of hearings that instances of inappropriate confusion are not uncommon. Everyone stops for a moment, someone offers the reminder, and then business resumes.

By contrast, the outgoing chairman of the House committee is Joe Barton (R - Texas). He's 57 years old, 22 years in Congress.

I'm nowhere close to being a Republican, but Barton's chairmanship seemed to be characterized by balance, moderation, and accommodation. The difference in his style compared to Stevens in the Senate was startling. The DTV bill that came out of Barton's committee more or less addressed what needed doing, including consumer education.

Under Dingell's minority leadership in Barton's committee, the Democrats put forward a substitute DTV transition bill (not adopted) that they called the "Television Takings Restoration Act of 2005." They characterized the transition not as the introduction of a new advanced higher quality, more efficient digital TV standard that benefitted consumers, but rather as a government confiscation of the public's property (that is, their analog TV sets).

Dingell's bill would have given two free converter boxes to every American household, whether they wanted one or not. Nobody would have to request a coupon, the government would have mailed one to everyone. This would not be a $40 subsidy per box, but rather a completely free converter box.

Dingell's converter box program would have cost $3.5 to $4 billion.

It seems likely then, as I have already predicted, that the converter box subsidy program, now funded for up to $1.5 billion, will be expanded so that anyone who requests a $40 coupon will be able to get one (no longer first come, first served).

What other Democratic changes can we expect?

The provisions in the stalled Senate bill relating to video franchising do not require that national cable TV providers serve all parts of a community. Dingell strongly objected to that; he advocated that if a new video service chose to enter a community, they would be required to extend cable to all neighborhoods in that community.

Both parties favor more consumer education on the transition to digital TV. The education provisions in Barton's DTV transition bill last year were stripped out in the Senate-House conference (along with other important transition actions). The currently stalled Senate bill includes education provisions.

With all the delays, however, any labeling requirements for analog TVs will be moot, since new analog TVs will be banned a few months from now. There is still a need for broadcaster public service announcements.

I hope Dingell can focus on resolving those basic practical issues right away without trying to remake everything that is already on the books.

There remains the issue of broadcast flag authority for the FCC, offering anti-piracy protection for content producers. Reasonable rules for this have already been worked out that would protect consumers' rights to personal use of such content (without redistribution). If old engrained ideologies cannot be erased from old minds, however, nothing will happen.

There are other issues hanging, such as the ongoing battle over multi-cast must-carry between the cable companies and the broadcasters. This has been a cat-fight between big business lobbyists. We'll see if the Democrats are as beholden to special interests as the Republicans.

Here again, we're faced with the senior leadership making decisions based on political power criteria. Business as usual. Fifty years in Congress will do that to a public servant.

Am I cynical?

Wait! There's more. A lot of cable issues.

Can cable companies downconvert the high-definition digital signal and send it out to their customers as standard-def analog? Can they continue pricing in "tiers" of their own choosing, or will they be forced to offer a la carte channel pricing? These and related issues have been political hot potatoes for the leadership of both parties. Don't expect that to change.

But will they get anything done?