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Broadcasters Miss Digital Deadline Wed May 1, 6:12 PM ET

WASHINGTON (AP) – A U.S. senator Wednesday criticized television broadcasters for failing to meet a deadline in the transition to digital and said Congress may intervene if significant progress doesn’t emerge.

While crediting some broadcasters for contributing to the shift to digital, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the transition a “grave disappointment for American consumers.”

On Wednesday, all commercial TV stations in the U.S. were supposed to be broadcasting a digital signal, but, as McCain pointed out, most missed it.

“Today it is clear that three-quarters of those broadcasters have not met their commitments, and their failure to do so is slowing the transition to digital television,” said the ranking Republican on the Commerce Committee.

The target date for a complete transition to digital signals, which offer crisp images and sound, is 2006. The rollout, however, has run into obstacles, including concerns by content providers that their works will be pirated.

McCain said a slow transition affects Americans not only as consumers, but also as taxpayers.

“Broadcasters were given $70 billion in spectrum to facilitate the transition on the condition that they return it when the transition is complete,” the senator said. “By failing to meet today’s deadline, broadcasters continue to squat on the taxpayers’ valuable resource.”

The wireless industry, eager for spectrum, also criticizes broadcasters for not making timely digital advances.

“The wireless industry has proven that consumers want and use digital technology,” the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association said. “It’s also the most efficient and responsible use of valuable spectrum.”

Michael Powell, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (news – web sites), a month ago proposed voluntary steps for the industry to accelerate the shift to digital. Certain broadcast networks and the cable industry have expressed willingness to go along with the plan.

McCain said he hopes those commitments lead to results. He said the FCC (news – web sites) plan is appropriate for now, but alternative measures might be necessary in case of further delays.

Edward Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, said his group is pleased that the cable industry is moving toward carrying digital broadcast signals.

“We look forward to the day when cable operators carry all digital broadcast signals in their entirety,” he said.

The NAB has said that 324 digital television stations are on the air in 108 markets.

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