FCC moves to speed shift to digital TV

Apr 8, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Giving the digital TV transition a kick in the pants, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell last week announced a wide-reaching voluntary plan under which consumer electronics manufacturers would begin to include DTV tuners in new TV sets and many cable operators would agree to carry up to five digital broadcast signals.
Under the proposal, which was forwarded to key congressional leaders, the Big 4 TV networks would agree to start offering at least half of their prime-time schedule in high-definition or some other enhanced digital mode beginning with the 2002-03 season.
In addition, Big 4 TV network affiliates in the top 100 markets would install equipment needed to pass through whatever sort of digital signal their network is offering by the beginning of next year.
Also under the proposal, the chairman called on direct broadcast satellite operators to carry the signals of up to five digital programming services providing HDTV or some other “value-added digital programming” during at least half of their prime-time schedule. Cable would be called on to provide subscribers with the option of leasing or purchasing a single set-top box that would allow them to get HDTV.
Another provision in the proposal urges broadcasters to promote their digital offerings on their analog channels. Still another would preclude cable operators from charging broadcasters for the digital retransmissions.
The provision also asks manufacturers to begin equipping half of their larger TV sets with DTV tuners starting in 2004. Most sets are supposed to include the tuners by the end of 2006.
In an April 4 cover letter to Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., Mr. Powell said the plan, while “purely voluntary,” proposes to share the pain among each of the industries relevant to the transition.
“I intend to seek commitments along these lines in the near future,” Mr. Powell said. “It [the plan] is intended to provide an immediate spur to the transition by giving consumers a reason to invest in digital technology today, while we continue to work on resolving the long-term issues.”
But how far the proposal will go was far from clear at deadline.
Representatives of CBS, ABC and Fox said they would either try to meet or already exceed the 50 percent target. An NBC spokeswoman said all of NBC’s new prime-time programming will be offered in HDTV. “We’ll study whether we can meet the 50 percent request,” she said.
In addition, Eddie Fritts, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, said he sees the plan as a major step forward in breaking the DTV logjam-even though the association has “concerns over elements of the proposal.”
Robert Sachs, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said the cable industry is already “actively working to accomplish” some of the proposals. “Other of Chairman Powell’s proposals warrant further study,” Mr. Sachs said.
The Consumer Electronics Association, meanwhile, made clear that it opposes the DTV tuner obligation. “It’s very important that we preserve consumer choice in the marketplace,” said Michael Petricone, CEA VP of technology policy.