These are the news headlines as read on the Oct. 21 edition of the mediageek radioshow: Senate Commerce Committee Passes DTV Bill, VNR Labelling Bill; RIAA Pushing for Radio Broadcast Flag; A Wolf in Consumers Clothing.
Senate Commerce Committee Passes DTV Bill, VNR Labelling Bill
On Oct. 20 the Senate Commerce Committee finally passed a bill addressing the date when analog TV signals would be shut off, replaced entirely by digital TV signals. April 7, 2009 is now the date when its likely that households that dont have digital TVs or converter boxes will see their analog TV sets go dark.
April 7, 2009 has been set as a so-called hard date, which means that it would not be subject to extensions of any kind for any broadcasters. Television broadcasters whose digital broadcasts arent ready to go will be left behind, no longer able to use their analog spectrum.
The Commerce Committees bill passed by 19 to 3 vote, with Democrats John Kerry, John Rockerfeller and Barbara Boxer voting no.
If passed into law, the bill would create a fund of almost $5 billion to fund a a range of communications-related projects.. Three billion of this fund is allocated to help households buy converter boxes that allow analog TVs to receive digital signals. Each box would require a $10 co-pay from the recipient, but there would be no limit to the number of converters a household may get.
Republicans have wanted to allocate a much smaller amount to fund converter boxes, and the $3 billion number may be reduced by as much as 2/3 by the Senate Budget Committee, which receives the bill from the Commerce Committee.
The remaining $2 billion would be allocated to enhancing emergency communications and assisting low-power television stations in their transition to digital.
The $5 billion fund would be the result of auctioning off a portion of the to-be-vacated analog TV spectrum, which the Congressional Budget Office predicts will net about $10 billoin. The remaining $5 billion would go to the US Treasury.
The Commerce Committee bill takes no position on the hot-button issue of digital multicast must-carry. Broadcasters would like to see cable providers be required to carry all the channels they broadcast as part of their digital TV signals. Whereas cable operators prefer to have to carry only a broadcasters primary signal.
Broadcasters are reluctant to accept a hard date for analog TV signals to go dark, but expressed willingness to take it in exchange for multicast must-carry. However, the issue of must-carry would have further held up the digital TV transition bill which has to go to the budget committee before the end of the month. Therefore Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stephens is expected to introduce a separate bill addressing the must-carry issue.
During the same meeting, the Senate Commerce Committee also passed the Prepackaged News Story Announcement Act of 2005, which addresses the governments use of manufactured news stories, often known as video news releases, or VNRs.
This Act, introduced by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), would require all VNRs to include a clear disclaimer that indicates that the government is its source.
Although public interest groups are declaring the acts passage a victory, the version that passed is watered down from its original version. Lautenberg and Kerrys original bill would have required the disclaimer ”Produced by the U.S. Government” to appear on screen continuously throughout the duration of a VNR.
The bill as passed does not clearly outline how the disclaimer must appear, leaving it up the FCC to write rules for how the disclaimer must appear.
The bill also allows TV news producers to use snippets of VNR footage, known as B-Roll, without using the disclaimer. Only broadcasts of full VNRs will require it.
The Prepackaged News Story Announcement Act comes after the General Accounting Office reported that government-sponsored VNRs on issues like health care and education initiatives were not actually news, and should not have been funded by Congress.
While the Act would place some restraints on the governments use of VNRs, the bill does not address the production of VNRs by corporate lobbying groups, thousands of which air every year on TV news programs without any labeling or disclaimer.
The bill now goes to the Senate floor. No companion bill has yet been introduced in the House.
RIAA Pushing for Radio Broadcast Flag
By now it should be clear that the Recording Industry Association of America would like to limit your ability to record and use recorded music any way it can. Now the RIAA has set its sights on locking down digital audio broadcasts and keeping you from recording them. Thats according to the public interest group Public Knowledge which has uncovered language that it says is part of draft policy the recording industry is circulating in Congress to require broadcasters to encrypt their signals.
The RIAAs draft policy would also have the FCC prohibit the use of software to record digital broadcasts. In particular the RIAA wants to prevent the use of software that would be able to record particular songs or programs less than 30 minutes in length effectively preventing someone from isolating a particular song in a longer broadcast.
If adopted by Congress, the rules the RIAA wants to impose would apply to the new pending standard for digital radio broadcasting, called IBOC. If the RIAA has its way, as radio stations make the transition to digital broadcasting, each new digital signal would be locked down, and broadcasters and the music industry would be able to prevent listeners from recording programs that they can currently freely record from analog broadcasts.
In essence, the RIAA is seeking to impose the broadcast flag on radio broadcasts, in the same way that the movie industry wants to impose it on TV. Courts struck down the FCCs attempt to impose the broadcast flag on digital television broadcasts, saying the commission had exceeded its authority, since imposing the flag requires placing regulations on computer and electronics manufacturers, in addition to broadcasters.
Now the MPAA is pushing Congress to impose the flag, and the RIAA is joining in.
Whats ironic about the recording industrys desire to lock down digital radio broadcasts is the fact that there are many indications that the sound quality of IBOC digital radio is often not as high as regular analog FM stereo broadcasts. IBOC digital radio uses digital compression technology similar to MP3s and satellite radio. In some cases the compression is more aggressive than what is used for the songs purchased from on-line music services. Therefore the quality of IBOC sound suffers, even in comparison to analog FM broadcasts.
In all likelihood, recordings made from IBOC broadcasts will not sound as good as recordings from analog FM, and will only get worse if recompressed to MP3 for portable players or trading.
But the RIAA isnt worried so much about the practicalities, anyway. The recording industry has been attacking home recording since the 1980s, and would be trying to lock down analog radio broadcasts if the technology were as feasible as it is for digital broadcasts.
The Consumer Electronics Association, the industry group for manufacturers of items like televisions, stereos and radios, opposes the broadcast flag for radio or TV. The CEA and public interest groups feared that the RIAAs language might make it into the Senate Commerce Committees digital TV bill, but that did not happen. Now theyre looking to see if it gets slipped in at the budget committee.
Several key senators, like majority leader Bill Frist of Tennesee, come from states where the recording industry is very influential. Thus, even if the RIAAs draft policy doesnt make it into the upcoming budget bill from committee, it could be introduced from the floor. However, if that happens, the so-called Byrd rule would kick in, which prohibits non budgetary items from being slipped into the process. A supermajority of 60 senators would be required to waive the Byrd rule.
Once again the fight over intellectual property moves to Congress and the rights of average people to record and use their cultural content is at the mercy of representatives elected by their constituents, but often funded by the industries that want to constrain their rights.
A Wolf in Consumers Clothing
On the surface the group Consumers for Cable Choice appears to be fighting for better better television choices for consumers. According to the groups website, its goal is an open, diverse, pro-consumer market for cable subscribers that will stimulate price, choice and service options.
So, would it surprise you to learn, then, that Consumers for Cable Choice is actually doing the bidding of the big local telecommunications providers? In fact, the industry journal CableFAX has learned that Consumers for Cable Choice was started last June by a $75,000 startup grant from Verizon. That was just about the time the telecomm industry was gearing up for a fight in Texas to change the rules governing cable television services, reducing the power of local municipalities to negotiate contracts with companies, known as franchises.
Then, in September, Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry signed into law a bill that establishes statewide Internet-based TV and cable-TV franchise rights that eliminates the need for companies to obtain individual franchises from each of the hundreds of municipalities in the state.
The bill primarily benefits telecommunications companies like SBC and Verizon that want to get into delivering TV over broadband, but without having to deal with the responsibilities their competitors in the cable industry have had for the last thirty-plus years.
And, of course, the Consumers for Cable Choice was one group that applauded the new law.
While Consumers for Cable Choice claims to working for a pro-consumer market in cable TV, the group doesnt mention that its desire to eliminate local franchise agreements for cable TV services would likely mean the end of local service channels for consumers. Without a local franchise agreement negotiated with local cities and municipalities, consumers would likely loose public access TV channel, school-run educational channels, and city channels that air things like city council meetings.
Now the campaign to eliminate local cable franchise agreements is moving national. All indications are that the big telcos, and groups like Consumers for Cable Choice, are trying to get the elimination of local franchises written into the forthcoming Telecommunications Act of 2006.
Want to know whos pulling the strings? Just follow the money.