Las Vegas— Broadcasters are profoundly suspicious that the digital TV interoperability agreement between cable operators and consumer-electronics manufacturers could be a bad deal for consumers.
What TV stations fear is that the December agreement between major cable companies and CE firms will mean that DTV sets labeled "cable ready" would not include a tuner that can receive either analog or digital programming from an off-air antenna.
"One could have a cable-viewing device that is not a TV set," said Lynn Claudy, chief engineer of the National Association of Broadcasters, during a panel discussion April 7 at the trade group's annual convention here.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission ordered TV set makers to include off-air DTV tuners under a phase-in plan that begins with the largest units in July 2004 and works down to 13-inch screens in 2007.
But Tribune Broadcasting president Patrick J. Mullen said the FCC rule appeared to require the inclusion of DTV tuners only in sets that also have off-air analog tuners. That could leave the door open for the manufacture of DTV sets that are considered "cable-ready", but have no off-air tuner at all.
Added Claudy, "That's clearly a loophole that we want to see closed."
The cable and CE companies have asked the FCC to codify the interoperability agreement into federal regulations. Rick Chessen, who heads the FCC's DTV transition task force, said it was "not clear" whether the tuner issue highlighted by NAB was "an oversight" or something "intentional" in the cable-CE agreement.
The agreement was not deliberately drafted to exclude off-air tuners, insisted Consumer Electronics Association president Gary Shapiro.
"We were totally surprised by their concerns. There is no grand conspiracy," Shapiro said.
One broadcast industry leader indicated the agreement intentionally allows for cable-ready sets with no off-air digital tuner because of the CEA's strong opposition to the FCC's digital-tuner mandate.
NAB deputy general counsel Valerie Schulte suggested that DTV sets under the cable-CE agreement should be marked "not ready for broadcast," rather than "cable ready."
Meanwhile, FCC chairman Michael Powell warned NAB attendees last Tuesday that political pressure is mounting for the return of the broadcast analog spectrum, a move that would signify the end of their transition to all-digital broadcasting.
Powell said Congress is eager to reallocate the analog spectrum to other users — most likely public-safety organizations and wireless companies — and will not tolerate a prolonged DTV transition.
"You don't have that much political room," Powell said at a breakfast session where he fielded questions from ABC journalist Sam Donaldson. "Let me tell you something: There is not a comfortable political climate for this to go on unnecessarily long.
"There are other constituencies waiting for spectrum. Wireless issues have grown in their significance and their political interests."
TV stations may retain both their analog and digital licenses until Dec. 31, 2006 or until 85 percent of TV households in a market can receive off-air DTV signals, whichever is later.