Hundreds of broadcasters will rally in Washington next week under the NAB banner to make their case for digital must carry and other causes. They hope for good news from Stevens and Barton.

Is passage of a multicast must carry bill a real possibility this year? That’s among the many crucial questions broadcasters hope to answer when they converge next week in Washington for Lobbyfest ’06—the NAB State Leadership Conference, that is.

More than 350 broadcasters led by state broadcast association chiefs will rally at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, listen to what key lawmakers and regulators have to say and then head for the Hill to make sure that their state delegations are listening to them.

It’s an important three days for the broadcasters. If they hope to get anything accomplished this year on the Hill or at the FCC, they must start now—and start fast. At the same time, they know this is a good time to derail rules or regulations they don’t want, before they gain any momentum.

Whipping them into a lobbying frenzy will be David Rehr, NAB’s new president. He is a big believer in grassroots power and this is his first major opportunity to put his theories into play. I’m curious to see what ideas he has and how the broadcasters react to him.

The broadcasters may get some of its answers quickly. The two lawmakers controlling broadcast legislation—Senate Commerce Committee Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas)—are slated to speak to the group on Tuesday.

Stevens is on record supporting multicast must carry. It’s possible he’ll announce plans to move a DTV bill later this year with a multicast must carry provision. But broadcasters might not be thrilled with all aspects of his measure. It might also address his concerns about the impact of retransmission consent on small rural cable operators and it might allow cable to downgrade the broadcast HD signals they would be required to carry.


Unfortunately for the broadcasters, Barton is not a multicast must carry fan and he has expressed no desire to delve back into DTV this year. However, he is writing legislation designed to grease telco entry into competition with cable. That’s something the broadcasters favor.

That the cranky Stevens is even showing up for the NAB event is a good sign. He’s a longtime broadcast ally, but he was ticked off at the NAB for failing to hire his protégé Mitch Rose as Eddie Fritts’ successor. Somehow, he seemed to be blaming Rehr for the slight.

Perhaps the Alaskan broadcasters who will be in the room Tuesday helped melt the ice. Stevens’s ties with the Alaska Broadcasters Association go way back. Before he entered politics, he served as the group’s first secretary-treasurer, says Executive Director Darlene Simono. Stevens even wrote the ABA’s articles of incorporation, she says, adding: “We do have a very good relationship with him.”

TV broadcasters will also hear Tuesday from the FCC’s newest commissioner, Deborah Taylor Tate, but I will be surprised if she gets into much substance so early in her tenure. Tennessee broadcasters have already gotten to know her a bit. Tate met with the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters’ board in August, prior to her confirmation, and returned after her appointment for the association’s annual convention last month.

“I think she knows she’s got her hands full,” says Whit Adamson, president of the Tennessee group. “What we understand her expertise is, is in the mediation process. She brings people together and finds an area or middle ground that everybody can agree on.” That doesn’t sound like she is ready to get out front on anything.

The state associations tell me that lining up support for multicast must carry is a top priority, but they say they have other needs. They will register opposition to cable’s efforts to downconvert local TV stations’ HDTV signals or any attempts to revise retransmission consent rights.

The broadcasters will also heighten congressional awareness about potential DTV transition problems. More than 540,000 Arizona households—those without satellite or cable—will go dark if they don’t get the digital-to-analog set-top boxes, says Art Brooks, president of the Arizona Broadcasters Association. Members of Congress “know this but we need to keep the ball rolling,” he says.  “Now that we have a commitment of an end date, it is really necessary that all of these ingredients fall into place in a timely manner.”

Montana’s heavy reliance on translators complicates the DTV transition for its mostly rural residents. “We’re hoping to get some funding to replace those translators with digital translators,” says Gregory MacDonald president of the Montana Broadcasters Association.

Underscoring all the broadcasters’ pleas will be their insistence that they are better than the other guys. Getting multicast must carry and other DTV transition relief, they say, will help broadcasting in providing local news, sports and weather—the whole public service package. Says Christine Merritt of the Ohio Association of Broadcasters: “It is our commitment which sets us apart from satellite and cable.”

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