WASHINGTON--A leading Capitol Hill advocate of high-definition
TV said Thursday that he wants to impose tougher deadlines on broadcasters
in a bid to speed up adoption of the new format.
Congress has set Dec. 31, 2006, as a target date for broadcasters to switch
from the analog system to digital delivery, a move that is supposed to
offer consumers more programming choices and higher-quality sound and
pictures. But that deadline could be pushed back if fewer than 85
percent of U.S. households have digital TVs at that time, something that
looks highly unlikely as long as broadcasters and TV manufacturers refuse
to let go of the dominant analog market.
Republican and Democratic members at a House Commerce Telecommunications
Subcommittee hearing Thursday agreed that, as the subcommittee's ranking
Democrat Ed Markey put it, "we are not remotely close to meeting the
transition target of 2006."
High-definition supporter Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the full
committee, said the possibility of the spectrum give-back going past 2006
"is thwarting the certain and swift transition to digital." He said he is
open to "imposing a 'hard' deadline of 2006 to reinvigorate everyone to
work together to bring about the transition," as long as consumers would
have access to digital receivers, TVs and set-top boxes "at reasonable and
In what was the latest of a series of hearings on the digital transition,
broadcasters said in their defense that only 185 of 1,600 U.S. TV stations
currently transmit a digital signal. They maintained that more stations
will convert and high-definition programming will increase when more TV
sets are sold.
But TV manufacturers said consumers need more programming to justify the
high cost of digital TVs. The retail cost of those TVs, they said, can't
come down significantly until production costs drop from higher consumer
interest, which can only be fueled by broadcasters.
This chicken-and-egg debate led Tauzin to say in frustration "that
proverbial egg is going to be broken over the heads of consumers."
At issue Thursday was to what extent Congress and the Federal
Communications Commission need to become involved in the digital TV
transition. John Dingell, the ranking Democrat of the full committee, said
"this is not the kind of issue government decides best," but there were so
many issues raised concerning the transition that Tauzin and others
suggested government may have no choice.
Driving Congress to act isn't just a desire to provide consumers with
prettier pictures. The Budget Act of 1997 targeted analog broadcast
spectrum for re-auction, and Markey said the ongoing plans for a multiyear
tax cut will make even more urgent the need for federal revenues.
Napster the sequel?
One of the key concerns for broadcasters is the unsettled debate about
securing copyrights via digital devices. Tauzin and Rep. Anna Eshoo,
D-Cal., said that if broadcasters fear their high-quality movies and other
entertainment will be pirated, they may only place second-tier programming
on their digital TV broadcasts, giving consumers less reason to purchase
digital TV sets.
"We need to get our hands around the delicate issue of providing digital
copyright protection while preserving long-standing consumer expectations
about taping in the privacy of their homes for noncommercial, personal
purposes," said Tauzin.
Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., who has been heavily involved in the debate over
digital downloading, pointed out that the crystal-clear images of digital
TV can be copy-protected while allowing personal copying for cable and
satellite customers thanks to a set-top box.
For the 15 percent of homes that receive only over-the-air TV, however,
"there's no way to apply a blocking technique."
Several other thorny issues must be resolved before the broadcast spectrum
can be returned to the government.
• Digital reception can be
spotty, particularly with indoor antennas. The FCC is seeking comment on
whether it should mandate a reception standard, but the consensus of the
subcommittee was that market competition would
solve that problem.
• Interoperability with cable
systems has not advanced as fast as Congress and the FCC had hoped. With 85
percent of U.S. homes receiving TV broadcasts from cable or satellite, this
issue will remain of interest to the federal government.
• Broadcasters say they need
their digital stations carried on all relevant cable systems along with
their analog stations, even when they're broadcasting the same content.
Cable systems argue that they'll be forced to remove cable
channels popular with consumers. In January, the FCC refused to make a
final ruling on the subject and decided to postpone imposing digital TV
carriage rules on cable. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., and others on the
subcommittee said they'd be watching that issue closely.
Tauzin said that the digital TV transition is critical to Congress' desire
to accelerate the release of broadband in the United States. Digital TV "is
going to be the introductory offering of broadband to a vast majority of
citizens," he said, referring to the experiments many broadcasters are
running with that transmit digital streams with their broadcast signals.