The Federal Communications Commission has established a seven-member internal task force on the broadcast-TV industry's digital transition, charged with setting the agency's priorities as a key deadline draws near.
FCC chairman Michael Powell named Mass Media Bureau lawyer Rick Chessen to head the task force. At the agency's Oct. 11 meeting, Powell — a skeptic of government edicts that have been imposed on broadcasters — warned Chessen that he was accepting a "thankless task."
All 1,300 commercial TV stations are required to transmit a digital signal by May 1, but the industry has already told the FCC that one-third of broadcasters won't make the deadline, and thus will need waivers. About 200 stations currently offer digital television.
Broadcasters blame many of their problems on the cable industry's failure to agree to carry both analog and digital signals, and on the consumer-electronics industry, which hasn't included a DTV turner in nearly all new sets.
TV stations also blame both industries for not establishing compatibility between digital set-top boxes and DTV receivers.
Chessen said the task force had two goals: promoting a fast transition and recovering TV spectrum for other users. But he acknowledged that the issues are complex and difficult to solve.
Chessen said he hoped the task force would assist the FCC members in identifying regulatory obstacles that could be removed. Even after that had been accomplished, he said much of the transition was in the hands of industry.
"This will require the cooperation of the industries involved. To the extent competitors may be more interested in finger-pointing and free-riding off the efforts of others, I think the transition is going to be hindered," Chessen said.
In 1997, the FCC required TV stations to return their analog spectrum by 2006, but Congress gutted that hard deadline by delaying the return on a market-by-market basis, until 85 percent of households in a given TV market had digital-reception equipment.
In a statement, Powell called the 2006 give-back date "an unrealistic assumption" and hinted that the task force would be the ideal body to recommend eliminating the deadline.
"This task force will help us re-examine the assumptions on which the [FCC] based its DTV policies, and give us the ability to react and make necessary adjustments," Powell said.
The task force also appears to be designed to assuage key lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who have grown increasingly concerned that the DTV transition is moving too slowly.