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FCC seeking smooth digital TV transition

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WASHINGTON — TV stations should be forced to pay for their existing channels beginning in 2003 as they switch over to new and hugely lucrative digital channels, the head of the Federal Communications Commission says.

FCC Chairman William Kennard says the nation needs the soon-to-be-abandoned channels now used for analog TV signals in order to provide room for ever-expanding new wireless technologies.

Citing billions of dollars in free digital channels that the industry is getting from the government, Kennard, in a speech scheduled for delivery Tuesday, challenged broadcasters to pay back the public by televising every presidential debate, airing more public service announcements and providing free air time to candidates.

"There is an increasing discomfort with the fact that broadcasters were given $70 billion in free spectrum," Kennard said in an interview with The Associated Press.

That same valuable air space could have brought even more money to the Treasury, with wireless Internet companies and others bidding for the channels, he noted.

Digital television allows broadcasters to offer sharper pictures and more channels. They could even use the airwaves to deliver stock quotes or other data to both home computers and TV sets, akin to an Internet service.

As part of the transition, broadcast stations will have two channels— one in digital and the other in analog format — so people can still watch broadcast shows on their existing analog TVs.

Broadcasters are supposed to return their analog channels by 2006 or when digital television reaches 85 percent of the market — whichever is later. But Kennard says this could allow broadcasters to be "spectrum squatters," holding on to analog channels for decades longer. He wants Congress to set a fixed date.

"We have to have it back," he said, saying the resource is vital to the U.S. keeping ahead in wireless services

Kennard said broadcasters should be charged for the analog channel beginning in 2006 and recommended that Congress order the agency to adopt a 2003 deadline by which all new TV sets can receive digital signals. He said this would drive down the price of the new sets.

In the wake of a decision by NBC and Fox not to show the first presidential debate last week, Kennard said more attention needs to be focused on what obligations broadcasters have to the nation.

Fox showed the premiere of its drama, "Dark Angel," in place of Tuesday's debate. NBC gave its local stations the option of showing politics or the first game of the Major League Baseball playoffs.

"The American public shouldn't have to hope that broadcasters cover an event as important as a presidential debate," Kennard said. "That is sort of a fundamental baseline obligation."

In his remarks prepared for the Museum of Television and Radio in New York on Tuesday, Kennard outlined steps that broadcasters should take, such as carrying all presidential debates as well as those in state and local races and even using their enhanced digital capacity to add local-access shows like those on cable.

He also said either the FCC or Congress should require broadcasters to provide free air time to political candidates as part of a broader effort at campaign finance reform.

But broadcasters have resisted further government mandates, saying they have done their part.

The National Association of Broadcasters estimates that stations spent $8.1 billion in 1999 in airtime for public-service announcements and to help charities raise money.

Broadcasters already have obligations such as providing public-affairs and educational children's programs.

The FCC is looking at how broadcasters' public duties might expand as they move to digital television and will hold a hearing on the subject next week. Commissioners also are expected to focus on educational programming and the broadcast of violent or explicit shows and ads when children might be watching.