When a federal agency with its own identity problem says the digital television transition is suffering from an identity crisis, it's not a reach to consider that among the most authoritative statements on such policy from the Beltway in a long time.
Last week, the General Accounting Office, an obscure but respected investigative arm of Congress, issued a report detailing the ways the federal government can accelerate the move from analog to digital broadcasting.
GAO advocated three steps, including a Federal Communications Commission public relations campaign to alert consumers about the DTV transition and the benefits of the new technology, such as dramatically improved picture quality and sharper sound.
"[The] FCC itself has not undertaken any significant activities to raise public awareness of the DTV transition and its implications," the GAO report said.
The report added that the FCC could take on this task by itself or in tandem with industry participants. But the FCC officials interviewed essentially told the GAO that private industry, not government, should bear the burden of hawking new technology to the public.
GAO indicated a public relations effort with the FCC's imprimatur was necessary because a GAO-commissioned poll showed that 20 percent of respondents were "very aware" of the DTV transition but a large portion of the public — 40 percent — was totally clueless about it.
Moreover, the GAO said it sent staff to visit 23 retail outlets in five states and found that TV sales personnel in 18 stores communicated "a fair amount of inaccurate" information on at least one important DTV issue.
"The potential combination of consumers who may be unaware of the DTV transition, interacting with retailers providing erroneous DTV information, is a consumer protection nightmare scenario," said Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), for whom the GAO prepared the report.
Markey pledged to craft legislation next year that would incorporate GAO's proposals.
In 1997, the FCC loaned every TV station in the country additional spectrum to provide digital broadcasting. But, according to the GAO, the transition has dragged because stations have been slow to beam digital signals; cable operators have been reluctant to carry those signals if just a prettier version of the already-carried analog signals; TV set makers have balked at installing digital receivers in DTV monitors; and the broadcast networks (especially Fox) have not saturated the airways with enough high-definition programming.
Last April, FCC chairman Michael Powell unveiled a voluntary plan designed to push things along. In August, Powell decided to intervene in the market by ordering TV set makers to include off-air DTV tuners in nearly all new TV sets by mid-2007.
The GAO report called the DTV tuner mandate a step in the right direction. But because 90 percent of households have at least one TV hooked to cable and satellite, the GAO questioned whether many who purchased DTV sets would actually use the off-air tuner.
A better idea, the GAO report said, was for the FCC to require to TV set makers to build digital cable-ready sets.
"Digital cable-ready sets could be important to the DTV transition because consumers may be more likely to purchase digital television sets if the set does not require a set-top box to access cable service," the GAO said.
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association and Consumer Electronics Association have been negotiating digital cable-ready standards for years without a definitive agreement. The FCC is pressuring both to reach a deal fast. In a recent breakthrough, Panasonic Consumer Electronics signed the cable industry license needed to build DTV cable-ready sets that protect copyrighted and encrypted programming from unauthorized viewing and secondary distribution.
The GAO's second policy recommendation was for the FCC pick a "date certain" when "cable systems would, all at once, switch from carrying analog channels to carrying digital channels." GAO said this proposal, when coupled with a DTV cable-ready mandate, should give consumers greater confidence in buying digital TVs.
But GAO said it was cognizant of the NCTA's concerns that the "date certain" approach would require all cable customers to have either a digital set-top box or a cable-ready DTV receiver. Otherwise, the cable system would have to carry local TV stations in analog and digital to avoid disenfranchising customers.
GAO said the analog-to-digital switch it recommended would likely impose a heavy burden on small cable systems that have not converted to digital.
The NCTA did not issue a strong reaction to GAO's proposals.
"We'll need to review the full GAO report before commenting at length. However, a glance at its findings confirms our belief that consumers are just now learning about digital TV, that additional education for consumers and retailers would be helpful, and that the transition itself is fairly complex, not only for consumers but also for the industries that are voluntarily working together to make it happen," said Rob Stoddard, NCTA senior vice president of communications.