Television station owners will celebrate a stunning political victory this week when President Clinton is expected to sign a budget measure that lets them keep two TV channels for years to come.
The potentially lucrative arrangement is designed to ease the nation’s transition from a nearly 25-year-old analog television broadcast system to digital TV transmission--a technology that promises to bring more channels, improved sound and theater-quality high-definition television pictures to consumers who buy new digital TV sets.
But under the federal budget measure adopted by a lopsided vote in both houses of Congress last week, the transition to the digital age could extend well beyond the December 2006 deadline the Federal Communications Commission imposed for conversion to digital TV.
That’s because Congress threw out a firm transition date and, instead, created a generous three-part test that virtually ensures that most broadcasters will hold on to two TV channels instead of quickly returning their old analog airwaves to the FCC for auction by the agency to other communications entrepreneurs.
“I think broadcasters are going to hold on to these channels for a long time,” said Gigi B. Sohn, executive director of Media Access Project, a Washington watchdog group on communications issues. “If they do, they are going to deprive consumers of the benefits of increased [telecommunications] competition, because these frequencies they are supposed to give back to the government won’t be quickly made available for other” competitors.
Gerald J. Waldron, who serves as Washington counsel for the Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, contends that many broadcasters actually prefer a speedy transition to digital TV because it is costly to maintain separate facilities for digital and analog television transmission.
“People don’t realize it’s an expensive proposition to keep two systems up and running,” Waldron said.
The budget measure requires the FCC to grant a TV station owner an extension to keep his analog channel if 15% or more of the TV households in its market do not subscribe to cable TV or another provider of local digital programming, and households in the TV market don’t have either a digital TV set or a special converter box to enable them to watch programs on their old analog sets.
The FCC has begun allocating digital TV licenses, and at least 25 stations in the top 10 TV markets have pledged to offer digital TV signals by the fall of 1998.
But because the first digital TV sets are expected to cost upward of $2,000, many experts expect that consumers will be slow to embrace digital TV. Although converters will be available for about $100 to enable viewers with older sets to get digital TV reception, the converters won’t display much of the visual and aural advantages of digital TV.