Editorial: A needed push for shift to DTV

Apr 15, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Critics of FCC Chairman Michael Powell were underwhelmed earlier this month when he unveiled voluntary guidelines designed to breathe life into the comatose digital TV transition. But even his modest initiative is a step in the right direction, and Mr. Powell deserves credit for recognizing the need for action and for at least trying to put the digital revolution back on track.
Nonetheless, the proposal will fail unless the various segments of the industry-including broadcasters, programmers, cable operators and consumer electronics manufacturers-each do their part. The transition has been plagued by foot-dragging, posturing and precious little action, with each segment apparently hoping the other guys will blink first and take on more than their fair share of the burden.
Most experts agree that the key to a successful DTV transition is getting consumers to embrace digital technology. And most agree that won’t happen until more digital programming comes to the marketplace. The Powell plan, which carries with it the modest threat of eventual regulation if the voluntary proposals don’t work, addresses the programming shortage directly. Among its proposals, it seeks a commitment from the Big 4 networks to offer at least half of their prime-time programming in high definition or some other digital format beginning with the fall 2002 season.
Positive signs have already begun to surface. After an initial gag reflex in response to the Powell initiative-which includes the suggestion that manufacturers be required to install DTV tuners in TV receivers-the Consumer Electronics Association softened its position last week. Speaking at the National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas, CEA President Gary Shapiro said the organization now recognizes that Mr. Powell’s proposal may have merit and indicated that manufacturers will consider going along with it.
On the programming front, NBC recently raised the bar when it announced that it will air all of its new prime-time shows in HDTV starting in fall 2002-another important step in the right direction.
But sustained progress will happen only if the television industry comes together to make it happen. Ideally broadcasters, programmers, cable operators and manufacturers will see that it is in everyone’s best interest to set aside the individual concerns of the various segments in favor of working toward a successful overall transition-a transition that will ultimately pay dividends for the entire industry. Embracing the voluntary guidelines would be a good start.
Inevitably, Mr. Powell and the FCC will come into play again. Now that he has stepped up to the plate on DTV, he is in a good position to follow through. But he must demonstrate that he has the will to regulate, something he has shown reluctance to do in the past.
If he is willing to break from his traditional aversion to regulation to maintain a true leadership role in the digital revolution, he may even end up with something that has eluded many of his predecessors: a legacy.