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Sparks Fly In Analog Cutoff Debate

Washington — The ongoing battle for the establishment of a firm analog television cutoff date to complete the digital television transition, brought another exchange this week between the consumer electronics and broadcast industries.

In a letter to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and later in an address to members of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), Consumer Electronics Association president/CEO (CEA) Gary Shapiro, pushed for a firm cutoff deadline for analog TV broadcasts, saying just 13 percent of American households rely on over-the-air broadcasts to receive television programming, while 87 percent receive programming from multichannel video services such as cable and satellite.

The figure ignited National Association of Broadcasters’ (NAB) president Edward O. Fritts, who drafted a rebuttal letter to U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, calling the CEA’s numbers “wildly inaccurate.”

Barton’s committee is looking at drafting legislation to establish a firm cutoff deadline, possibly by the end of 2006.

Fritts said that Mark Goldenstein of the Government Accounting Office told Barton’s committee on Feb. 17 that 19 percent of all American homes, or 21 million homes, rely exclusively on over-the-air television.

“CEA’s cavalier dismissal of these viewers ignores the potential for consumer outrage if millions of people prematurely lose access to this programming,” Fritts said. “Moreover, disenfranchising huge numbers of Americans from access to local TV should not be based on misleading data from a trade group of offshore receiver manufacturers.”

In a follow up letter to Barton, Shapiro called the 19 percent figure “a myth.”

“NAB’s numbers are undercut by figures provided by its own members and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In recent FCC filings, Sinclair Broadcasting estimates 13 percent over-the-air reliance, and Capitol Broadcasting puts the figure at 13-17 percent.

“The Walt Disney Company places the percentages at 9.1 percent in New York, and 15.3 percent in Los Angeles. The FCC’s most recent estimate is 14.86 percent. In any event, the rapid increase in subscriber households makes the trend line clear and the NAB numbers wishful rather than real.

“NAB can shuffle its numbers, but it cannot escape the facts: Over-the-air broadcast is the choice of a small and rapidly declining minority of American households.”

Shapiro also challenged broadcasters’ claims that they are not profiting from the DTV transition.

“The greatest transfer of public to private wealth in history was the loan of additional spectrum to the broadcasters — an arrangement that the Wall Street Journal described as ‘a multibillion dollar handout for wealthy TV station owners.’ With their intransigence over a hard deadline, NAB now seeks to transform the loan into a permanent gift.”

In his address at the ATSC, Shapiro said, “Broadcasters need to figure out a business model that actually works for them in the new digital age and sell Americans what they really want — HDTV.”

Shapiro said “recent figures from CEA show the percentage of American homes that rely only on an over-the-air signal is low and shrinking. Currently 87 percent of homes have access to cable or satellite. More pipelines capable of carrying video programming — including fiber optic lines, digital subscriber lines (DSL), telephone lines and power lines — are moving into American homes, jeopardizing the monopoly long enjoyed by broadcasters.”

Shapiro also criticized broadcasters for continuing “to refuse to educate the public on the existence, much less the value, of free over-the-air service.”

He urged the ATSC conference attendees and policy leaders to help accelerate the transition by supporting legislative efforts to set a hard date for an analog cutoff, promoting DTV to consumers and supporting CEA’s proposal to accelerate the FCC’s mandate for manufacturers to include digital tuners in television sets 25-inch and larger.

Fritts told Barton that “CEA’s letter appears clearly designed to shift attention from its relentless effort to delay reasonable DTV tuner mandate rules established by the FCC.”

“We’re puzzled why TV set manufacturers continue resisting phased-in tuner mandate rules, given that the DTV transition will allow these companies to share among themselves the greatest transference of wealth in the history of consumer electronics,” he added. “It’s common knowledge that each sale of an analog TV set only elongates the DTV transition. Yet astonishingly, CEA admits that its member companies intend to sell nearly 59 million analog television sets between 2004 and 2008.”

In his follow-up letter to Barton, Shapiro challenged Fritts’ claim that the continuation of analog TV broadcasting is necessary for public safety issues, by pointing to testimony for public safety organizations who require portions of spectrum analog broadcasters now use.

“The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) recently sent you a letter decrying ‘NAB’s cavalier dismissal of public safety needs.’ APCO implored you to set a hard analog cutoff date, explaining that, ‘the security of our homeland and the lives and property of our citizens as well as our responders are at stake.’”&