WASHINGTON (AP) - First the government gave TV broadcasters extra channels worth billions for free. Then it allowed them to decide how to use those channels: for high-definition TV, regular digital or some combination.
Now, however, some lawmakers say any broadcaster who decides against offering the sharp, new high-definition TV will be breaking a promise to Congress.
"The record is clear," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a key telecommunications lawmaker who planned a hearing Wednesday on the matter. "They made commitments for getting the spectrum free. In return for that, the American people would get this new technological marvel."
Broadcasters, for their part, say they haven't yet decided what to offer viewers. Options include digital, an improvement over existing analog television, and high definition, called HDTV, which provides even sharper pictures and sound. Broadcasters also are interested in using extra channel space to offer new services, some possibly for a fee.
Meanwhile, the extra channels also are giving policy-makers an opening to demand that broadcasters do more to serve the public for using more slices of valuable airwaves.
The Clinton administration and the Federal Communications Commission are leading this charge, which has broadcasters jittery. President Clinton, for instance, thinks broadcasters should give free time to political candidates as part of additional public interest obligations once they switch to digital.
The FCC ultimately will decide what additional obligations broadcasters should have, beyond current ones that include airing public affairs shows and children's educational programs and offering cheap political ads.
FCC rules require stations owned or affiliated with the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox networks in the 10 largest TV markets to begin providing some digital broadcasts within two years, but some stations have pledged to offer some in time for the 1998 holiday shopping season. Stations in smaller markets have more time.
But the rules don't require stations to offer HDTV. Instead, they leave it up to stations to decide how to use the digital technology. One option is for TV stations to cram more services into airwave space. For example, they could offer multiple channels of programming or sports scores to laptop computer users, for free or for a charge.
Congress, in a 1996 law, essentially gave broadcasters the right to use the extra channels as they see fit. But it decided to make broadcasters pay the government an as-yet undetermined fee if they charge for services.
Neither Congress nor the FCC forced stations to air a certain amount of programs in the high definition format, although they were heavily lobbied by TV set makers to do so.
McCain argues that's beside the point. He asserts that broadcasters promised Congress they would use the extra channels for HDTV. He unsuccessfully fought to make the broadcasters pay for the extra channels.
And Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., a broadcast ally, acknowledged that while broadcasters "clearly have a choice here" as to what they can offer, "broadcasters that choose to do HDTV are on the safest route because Congress clearly meant to replace the analog spectrum of broadcasting with a digital broadcast and enough to do an HDTV signal."
National Association of Broadcasters President Eddie Fritts has predicted that most stations will air some high definition programs.
But some individual broadcasters have indicated they are more interested in "multicasting" - offering several channels of programs and other services. Still, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, which are eyeing multicasting, haven't said they won't air some high definition. CBS and NBC have said they'll offer some HDTV in prime time. No network has announced final plans.
"ABC and many other broadcasters are beginning to evaluate multiple channel strategies," ABC Television Network President Preston Padden said in August.
His focus on multicasting and lack of emphasis on HDTV, combined with Sinclair Broadcast Group's interest in pooling extra channels to sell a cable TV-like service, largely ignited the current controversy.