FCC must make everyone share burden of DTV

Aug 12, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The recent effort by FCC Chairman Michael Powell to speed up the digital revolution is a welcome sign from a Federal Communications Commission that has been content for the most part to take a hands-off approach to regulating the media industry. But Mr. Powell seems to have abandoned his vision of spreading the burden evenly among the various market segments.
His initial voluntary guidelines, proposed more than four months ago, indicated he was on the right track. Among the provisions were guidelines for how the TV networks, stations, direct broadcast satellite operators, cable providers and consumer electronics manufacturers could expect to be asked to share responsibility for the shift to digital television.
Now comes the far more critical second phase, in which Mr. Powell must prove to some reluctant industry groups that he’s serious about getting everyone to play along.
He got off to a decent start back in May when he proposed rules under which stations that fail to get their digital operations on the air in a timely manner would face a series of punitive measures including fines and the possible loss of their DTV licenses. And word surfaced just this month that the FCC is ready to put further pressure on stations by eliminating their option of routinely running their DTV operations at reduced power.
Mr. Powell served notice last week that he’s also ready to play hardball with the electronics industry, as the FCC voted to require television manufacturers to put digital tuners in virtually all new sets by 2007.
But he has been strangely quiet about cable in the months since he presented his voluntary guidelines, and the cable industry, which was less than enthusiastic about those guidelines, promises to put up a fight-especially on the sticky issue of digital must-carry. Clearly, cable is a key player in the transition and the must-carry issue will have to be resolved if the transition has any chance of succeeding.
Meanwhile, the influential Senate Commerce Committee, headed by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., has begun crafting its own comprehensive set of rules designed to speed the digital transition. That legislation threatens to steal some of Mr. Powell’s thunder by picking up where his voluntary guidelines leave off, including tackling digital must-carry. If Mr. Powell fails to assert his leadership by the time the Hollings bill is unveiled, probably in 2003, oversight of the digital transition could shift substantially from Mr. Powell and the FCC to Sen. Hollings and Congress.
The FCC, with the ability to move much more rapidly than Congress, should continue to play a leadership role in the digital transition. Mr. Powell has a rare opportunity to create a lasting legacy for himself by steering the revolution according to his personal vision. But he will have to demonstrate that his vision is broader than what he has shown in recent months.