The leading House overseer of the communications business has been sharply critical of the broadcasting industry's efforts to block introduction of direct satellite-to-home television service.
That industry effort went flat last week as Rep. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.) suggested that Congress is likely to leave the matter in the hands of the Federal Communications Commission and indicated bluntly that he felt the National Association of Broadcasters was guilty of hypocrisy in complaining about the new service.
Wirth's comments came as a group of media companies lauded the potential of direct broadcast satellite (DBS) service and suggested there is little need for Congress to become involved in the hotly contested regulatory fight for first crack at DBS. One year ago, Communications Satellite Corp. filed the first application for U.S. direct broadcast satellite service.
Wirth, chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, was irked by the fact that the NAB, the leading lobbying arm of the radio and television industry, was suggesting to his subcommittee that DBS would waste valuable spectrum space by merely offering the public conventional television fare.
That, Wirth said, ran counter to the industry's claim that the government should be out of the business of regulating broadcasting content, a point the NAB raised one week earlier in urging Congress to repeal the Fairness Doctrine and equal time rules.
"What I don't understand is how the NAB rationalizes coming before this subcommittee saying that because it's duplicative programming we should get involved and focus our regulatory policy on the basis of program decision," Wirth said curtly to NAB President Vincent Wasilewski. Wirth said the NAB position was "directly the opposite of the competitive framework" the organization had advocated one week before.
Wasilewski countered that Wirth was "putting together apples and oranges" and said NAB has "not opposed" DBS, but is "just saying that the commission should determine whether this is a redundant service." Wirth responded by calling the testimony a "contradiction."
"On one hand, you talk about program [content] when that's convenient and on the other hand you talk about spectrum management when that's convenient," he said.
Observers left the hearing convinced that under Wirth's chairmanship, the committee is unlikely to become involved in the FCC's apparent intentions to authorize the first DBS service sometime early next year. That came as good news to a number of major communication companies, including Washington's Comsat.
The DBS technology permits the transmission of signals directly from satellites to roof-top antennas on homes and apartment buildings, for example. Comsat has proposed spending more than $600 million to develop a three-channel service, an effort that represents the first time the company has ventured into the television programming business.
After Comsat's lead, a group of companies, among them CBS Inc., RCA Corp., and Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., applied for DBS permission to the FCC. A total of eight proposals cleared preliminary FCC review.
But the opposition of the powerful National Association of Broadcasters to the FCC's apparent rapid handling of the DBS applications continued after Wasilewski's House appearance, with the lobbying group filing objections at the FCC to the eight petitions.