FCC Pushing Switch to Digital TV

Monday, April 8th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal regulators may look for ways to mandate faster transition to all-digital television if the TV industry fails to move quickly enough on its own, a Federal Communications Commission official said Friday.

The comments from Ken Ferree, chief of the media bureau at the FCC, added emphasis to a proposal by the agency's chairman that aims to bring digital TV to more American viewers.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell challenged everyone involved _ television networks, local network-affiliated stations, cable and satellite service providers and equipment manufacturers _ to voluntarily meet a series of goals on the way to a 2006 deadline.

Powell hopes that exposing more consumers to the technology, which allows for crisper pictures, higher sound quality, interactive capability and simultaneous programming on the same channel, will inspire them to demand more and thus jump-start digital TV development.

Powell's proposal, which was sent to Capitol Hill and the industry on Thursday, was an effort by the FCC to pressure the industry, Ferree said.

The FCC now will work to gain commitments from industry representatives. Ferree said that if that doesn't work, future steps could include mandatory requirements designed by the FCC.

The industries regularly have many other issues before the commission. ``I don't think they do themselves any favors at the commission by not being proactive players in the digital transition,'' Ferree said.

But Powell's road map should not be taken as a sign of specific enforcement actions the FCC might eventually take, he said.

Both the NAB and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association expressed concern with unspecified parts of Powell's plan but said they wanted to work with the FCC.

Congress mandated that most broadcasters convert by 2006 from existing analog technology to more efficient digital television, which allows much more programming and data to be transmitted over one channel. Broadcasters were given second TV channels for free to do so.

When the switch is complete, broadcasters must return their analog channels to the government for other uses. But the 2006 deadline would be pushed back in markets where digital television signals do not reach 85 percent of the market by then.

The slow pace of the transition has frustrated lawmakers and prompted finger-pointing.

Networks have been reluctant to produce high-definition programming without more outlets to transmit the shows or viewers with the right technology to see it. Many local stations struggle to justify the cost of converting to a digital signal without more programming. Equipment manufacturers also say more programming is the key to developing a big enough market for pricey digital TV sets and converter boxes that allow digital programming to be seen over regular sets. And cable and satellite service providers balk at allocating additional space for digital programming that often duplicates that on analog channels they carry.

Powell suggested that ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, HBO and Showtime provide value-added programming, such as high-definition, multicasting or interactive, during at least half their prime-time schedules, starting with this fall's season.

Affiliates in the top 100 biggest markets were asked to install the equipment to broadcast the digital signals by the beginning of 2003. A total of 271 stations already broadcast in digital, according to the National Association of Broadcasters.

Also by Jan. 1, cable and direct broadcast satellite providers should carry up to five digital programming services during half of their prime-time schedule, Powell said.

And digital TV tuners should be included in new sets, to be phased in starting with the larger sets and including all TVs by the end of 2006, Powell said.