Editorial: DTV plan puts unfair burden on consumers

Sep 30, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., sent shockwaves through the television industry this month when he announced new legislation aimed at speeding the digital transition. The key sticking point in his plan: a requirement that all stations convert to digital transmission and return their analog spectrum to the government by the end of 2006.
In congressional hearings last week the lawmaker appeared to back down from that position, which would be a wise move. We share Rep. Tauzin’s interest in speeding the DTV transition, but implementing a deadline on the return of spectrum is not the way to go.
Existing regulations let broadcasters slide on converting to digital until at least 85 percent of their viewers are equipped to receive digital signals. It’s an approach that makes sense, even though many experts don’t expect that threshold to be reached until around 2015.
The effect of the 2006 deadline would be to force consumers to buy new digital television sets before a strong demand exists in the marketplace.
It’s a plan that would put an unfair burden on consumers, rendering millions of existing television sets and VCRs obsolete. It became clear during last week’s hearings that many members of Rep. Tauzin’s House Energy and Commerce Committee believe it would be political suicide to alienate so many consumers. “An end of the analog signal on Dec. 31, 2006, could also be the end of many of our congressional careers,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democratic committee member from New York.
The potential price of the legislation, both to consumers and to the politicians who support it, also appears to be sinking in with Rep. Tauzin. After rolling out his plan to much fanfare with the claim of bipartisan support and every indication that he fully intended to go forward with it, he repositioned himself last week, saying the legislation was “designed to provoke tension.”
“I want to make clear that this is just a discussion draft; it’s not a bill,” Rep. Tauzin said, adding that the plan is meant to signal what Congress might do if the industry fails to move along the transition on its own.
That position has merit. It is clearly in the interest of the television industry to get going on digital. And it is the television industry that must take the lead by producing programming that will fuel the demand for DTV. Broadcasters have already taken significant steps in that direction. CBS in particular deserves mention for its recent decision to broadcast all prime-time entertainment shows in high definition this season.
That’s the kind of forward thinking that is needed to finally get the transition over the hump. If Congress wants to cheer from the sidelines, fine. But lawmakers should remain cautious about interfering too much in the delicate relationship between the TV industry and its audience.