Memo to Chairman Powell


Last week the Federal Communications Commission, which you head, voted 3-to-1 to order all television-set makers to include digital tuners in their sets by 2007.

And I guess you think this is dandy, judging from some of your remarks. "This action will take these electronic appliances from being HDTV [high-definition television]-ready to HDTV reality," you said.

But whose reality are we talking about here? You also seem to dismiss the notion that this action could possibly jack up the price of television sets. I know that you want to jump-start the switch to digital TV, and are probably sick and tired of all the foot-dragging on the part of TV set makers and broadcasters.

But is a regulatory mandate the answer here? I'm not so sure it is. Whatever happened to that good, old-fashioned notion of duking it out in the marketplace and, if you will, letting the chips fall where they may?

Obviously the price of TV sets will go up initially. It might stay up there if there is little consumer demand for improved picture and sound.

But with many people delaying their retirements because their 401K plans have tanked, do you really think the mass market is even thinking about new-and-improved picture quality?

Frankly, I thought there was a lot of logic and common sense in the remarks from dissenting commissioner Kevin Martin. He argued that most television viewers at present get their signals from cable or direct-broadcast satellite, so they don't need the tuners, period.

He has a point. How can these new TV sets ever become mass-market products when most folks seem to be very happy with what they already have? I'm in the business and I'm happy with cable, period.

Let me digress, with a personal account to make my point, if you will.

Last week, my yeoman-like TV set at work conked out, just one day after being hooked up to Time Warner Cable's digital service. We had moved the old set to our new offices, and the company actually sprung for the digital package — something we didn't have at the old digs.

The set worked fine for one day, and only one day. The next day it just gave up the ghost.

But I got lucky. Because we've had so many layoffs, like all other media companies, there were extra TV sets in storage. Our facilities people were able to get me a somewhat newer set, which was residing in the bowels of our building. It was probably a set from some laid-off middle manager who's likely still looking for a job.

Furthermore, had this happened to my TV set some months down the road — say in December, and not last week — and if we didn't have those extra sets on hand, our company would have had to go out and buy a much-more-expensive set with a digital tuner. That would be fiscally irresponsible, given the times.

And that's my point. Take a commuter train ride and listen hard to what people are really talking about these days. They are very worried about a double-dip recession. They are very worried about whether the real-estate market will be the next bubble to burst.

They are not talking at all about digital-television sets. No one on my train seems to be salivating about being the first on his block to own one. I hope you like yours.