Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell may be allergic to government mandates, but it turns out the same cannot be said for government suggestions.
In a move that caught some by surprise, the Republican last Thursday floated a plan to Congress that's designed to jump-start the digital television transition. It called for "purely voluntary" actions by TV networks, broadcasters, cable operators, satellite carriers and TV-set makers.
His timing was superb, if not deliberate. This week, the National Association of Broadcasters will hold its annual convention in Las Vegas — just a few weeks before all 1,309 commercial TV stations are required to beam digital signals that only a small fraction of the public can actually view.
According to the FCC, TV stations are nowhere near meeting the deadline. In fact, 856 stations (65 percent of the U.S. broadcast dial) have sought extensions. Although many of those stations are expected to be up and running within six months, the FCC last week sent more than 300 stations a letter asking for better justification for their failure to meet the May 1 deadline.
Although the FCC billed Powell's plan as voluntary, FCC Media Bureau chief Kenneth Ferree warned the cable industry that failure to comply with it would sour relations with FCC officials as they consider the merger between AT&T Broadband and Comcast Corp. and a host of rulemakings affecting the industry at large.
"That probably should be their assumption," Ferree told reporters Friday. "They should think that. I don't think they do themselves any favor at the commission by not being proactive players in the digital transition."
Powell's DTV transition plan was included in separate letters to Senate Commerce Committee chairman Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) and House Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.). Tauzin, for one, has met for months with industry players on ways to advance the transition.
Under the Powell plan:
The four major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox), along with Home Box Office and Showtime, would provide high-definition programming or other "value-added DTV programming" during the 2002-2003 season, for at least 50 percent of their primetime schedule.
By Jan. 1, 2003, the major-network affiliates in the top 100 markets would be required to install the equipment to pass through HDTV programming, if that is what the networks provided.
By Jan. 1, 2003, cable systems with 750 megahertz of capacity would offer free carriage for HDTV signals of up to five TV stations, or for other digital-programming services that offered HDTV during at least 50 percent of primetime. Cable would need to provide subscribers with the option of leasing or buying a single set-top that can display HDTV programming.
By Jan. 1, 2003, direct-broadcast satellite providers would have to carry five digital programming services that offer HDTV for at least 50 percent of primetime.
TV-set makers would be required to build cable boxes that are HDTV capable and "market broadcast, cable, and satellite DTV options at the point of sale."
Over time, television manufacturers would have to install off-air DTV tuners in new television sets.
By Jan. 1, 2004, 50 percent of TV sets 36 inches or larger would have to include DTV tuners. By Jan. 1, 2005, all such sets would require such tuners. The phase-in continues until Dec. 31, 2006, when all new DTV sets 13 inches and larger would need digital tuners.
PRESSURE ON POWELL
In his letters to Capitol Hill, Powell said he plans to reach out to each industry to elicit support. While far from perfect, the plan would "provide an immediate spur to the transition by giving consumers a reason to invest in digital technology today," Powell wrote.
With Congress panting to sell analog broadcast spectrum for billions of dollars, Powell has been under pressure to take the lead on a DTV transition that he heretofore had considered a long-term affair that can't be imposed on unwilling consumers.
But last week, Powell decided to break with the past and lay down milestones for measuring each component of the industry over the next four years.
"It shows a chairman who is engaged in this issue and who has got an interest in this transition," said Washington communications lawyer Richard Wiley, who helped sire off-air DTV. "He's certainly going to follow through and talk to the industry and say, 'Why can't you do this?' "
For years, the NAB has pointed fingers at cable and consumer-electronics companies for shirking their responsibility to assist in the transition.
Not surprisingly, the NAB was happy to see Powell press them.
"NAB views chairman Powell's [plan] as a major step forward in breaking the DTV logjam. While we have concerns over elements of the proposal, NAB congratulates Chairman Powell on this initiative," said NAB president Edward Fritts.
DISNEY: GUARD CONTENT
Notably, Powell excluded from his plan any proposal to deal with digital piracy. That issue is critical to Disney, which has said HDTV content would be threatened if movies and TV shows are illegally copied and distributed over the Internet.
"We need to move forward on both the DTV rollout and content protection at the same time," said Disney executive vice president of worldwide government relations Preston Padden.
Wiley asserted that copy protection could not be ignored.
"Obviously, that copy-protection issue is probably the most important of anything you've got," he said.
Powell's aims aren't complicated. FCC officials said they want the networks to produce HDTV programming, the distributors to carry it, and the TV set makers to include DTV turners so consumers can view it.
The metrics of the plan suggest the FCC's goal is attainable. The top 100 markets comprise 85 percent of U.S. households. Two-thirds of cable systems are at 750-MHz capacity, and DBS carriers' signals shower every state in the union.
FCC sources said the cable industry was not required to carry broadcaster-supplied HDTV programming, noting that operators could comply by carrying only cable networks.
"The idea here is to get the high-value programming in front of consumers. We are agnostic [as to] whether it's broadcast or cable programming," an FCC source said.
NCTA SOUNDS NEUTRAL
In a statement, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association neither endorsed nor opposed Powell's plan.
"Chairman Powell has put forward some thought-provoking proposals, several of which the cable industry is already actively working to accomplish," said NCTA president Robert Sachs. "Other of Chairman Powell's proposals warrant further study. We look forward to discussing these proposals with Chairman Powell."
The cable industry was puzzled a bit by the FCC's reference to "value-added DTV programming."
Powell classified that programming as not only HDTV but also "innovative multicasting, interactive, etc. — so long as it gives consumers something significantly different than what they currently receive in analog."
One possibility is cable carriage of multiple channels of educational programming supplied by PBS, an FCC source said.
"We are not suggesting that HD is the only way you can go," the FCC source said.