Desperately seeking DTV

'Creative' rollout solutions multiply; FCC pushes for interoperability resolution

Just when the pieces need to be falling into place for the transition to digital TV, broadcasters are still trying to puzzle out how to get there from here and how to get the government to help them.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell is signaling that he wants the FCC to increase pressure on all parties to resolve lingering technical problems, including ensuring that DTV sets work with cable TV.

At least four separate DTV plans are in the works from the National Association of Broadcasters, public television stations, ABC and Paxson.

The march back to the various drawing boards coincides with the increasing realization that the FCC's "tentative" decision in January not to grant analog/digital must- carry wasn't so tentative after all.

The industry plans are either seeking new carriage requirements on cable or asking that broadcasters get some relief in their DTV rollout.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell is encouraged by the flurry of activity, and, despite industry skepticism, his staff says he intends to make breaking the DTV deadlock a priority.

"To the extent the various parties are offering creative solutions, he will take a look," says Susan Eid, Powell's mass media and cable adviser. "The transition is clearly in the forefront of his mind."

So far, Powell has been reluctant to give broadcasters relief, preferring to keep pressure on the industry. Eid says Powell soon will "prioritize" the many DTV issues in an effort to break the logjam. If he's not eager to ease up on broadcasters, FCC Cable Services Chief Ken Ferree indicated last week, Powell may be more willing to put pressure on consumer manufacturers and the cable industry to resolve long-standing technical disputes that have hindered production of DTV sets that work with cable.

One of the groups with ahard plan on the table is Paxson, which wants the FCC to require that cable systems carry a station's entire 6 MHz offering, whether the signal is a single high-def program or several standard channels. Paxson also wants the FCC to let some broadcasters choose their digital rollout date rather than be forced to begin DTV transmission by May 2002.

The delay would be permitted only for broadcasters with one channel located higher than 51, the part of the spectrum band the FCC is trying to clear for wireless Internet users. The catch: Eligible broadcasters would be required to give up any channels between 52 and 69, leaving them with only one remaining signal rather than the two that broadcasters are allowed to operate during the transition.

Paxson's proposal is in its own best interest—its 18 stations are on the ch. 60-69 band that will be the first the government turns over to companies with the highest bid.

Public stations, which have the most-advanced DTV plans and last week secured $20 million in government funding for the transition, remain wedded to dual analog/digital cable carriage. America's Public Television Stations, PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are floating plans for phased-in cable-carriage obligations based on market size, the availability of digital signals and a cable system's channel capacity. The plan would apply to all stations.

A handful of major station groups within the NAB, including ABC Television, are pushing the organization to dump its long-standing demand for dual analog/digital carriage. Those groups mostly have outlets in top-30 markets where the DTV signals are already required to be online. Instead, they want the government to require cable companies to carry all 6 MHz of a station's digital signal, whether a single HDTV signal or several multicast channels. Any interactive features would have to be transmitted, as well, according to a recent ABC/Disney filing at the FCC. Cable companies would be responsible for making sure the signal can be received by their subscribers, either by providing a digital set-top box or downconverting the digital signal for analog subs.

Station groups with outlets mostly in smaller markets oppose the idea, which would obligate them to build out digital facilities rather than win a delay in the 2002 deadline. They say the NAB should stick to its fight for dual-carriage obligations and go to court if the FCC continues to say no.

"Stations in the top 30 markets want to share the pain of the DTV buildout rather than let small stations delay," says a broadcast source tracking the intra-industry disputes.

ABC is said to be working on a its own digital-only carriage plan, if the NAB balks.

That makes weaker stations nervous: They have always charged the nets with being lukewarm on the dual-carriage fight. That's because the networks are likely to negotiate digital-retransmission contracts with cable companies rather than relying on must-carry rights. Suspicion over the big nets' intentions was further heightened two weeks ago when CBS entered a retransmission agreement with EchoStar, a satellite carrier that generated lots of bad blood with local affiliates by carrying out-of-market analog network signals before Congress imposed local-carriage rules for satellite providers. Those rules don't apply to digital.

"The CBS proposal was sort of an in-your-face to smaller markets," says Jim Yager, past NAB joint board chairman and president of Benedek Broadcasting Corp.

In the meantime, the NAB is trying to present a unified front on other aspects of DTV relief. Three weeks ago, the group asked the FCC to delay the December 2004 deadline for a digital station to replicate stations' analog-service areas. Nearly all of the 201 DTV stations transmitting currently cover only the primary metro market of their license area. If stations don't replicate their analog footprint on time, the FCC will strip them of interference protections necessary to do so later.

The NAB also is seeking permission for DTV stations to operate at reduced hours until digital sets are prevalent in order to save electricity. The group has dropped plans to ask for a blanket delay in rollout date for all small-market stations and instead is asking for a streamlined process that will let individual stations fill out a simple form to request a waiver.

The NAB-proposed DTV cutback did little to endear it to critics at the Consumer Electronics Association, which say broadcasters are offering too little in the way of HDTV content to entice viewers as it is.