When it comes to the Federal Communications Commission’s new ideas about digital television, National Association of Broadcasters president Eddie Fritts doesn’t like what he hears.
“Our concern is, Chairman Powell may have abandoned the digital transition,” Fritts told Broadcasting & Cable.
Fritts’ remarks are his first public comment on a developing FCC plan to accelerate the transition to DTV and are unusually blunt for the trade group chief.
“We thought we were going from analog to digital," Fritss said. " This would be going from digital to analog.”
Fritts is complaining about a proposal to change the way the government counts how many homes are getting digital service from local stations.
If the plan actually goes into effect, homes would be counted even when they get only a cable version that has been converted from digital to analog. That’s a critical change for broadcasters because it would bring the day when stations must return their old analog channels to the government much more quickly than most expected and probably before many homes purchase TVs sets equipped to get digital on their own.“It’s almost like moving goal posts in middle of the game,” Fritts complained.
The cost for broadcasters is that most cable viewers—the overwhelming majority of the TV audience—won’t get high-definition pictures or other new services digital allows stations to offer. At the same time the FCC hasn’t laid out a solid game plan for making sure the 15% of Americans who rely solely on over-the-air analog for their TV will continue to get programming.
Last week, Powell cautioned broadcasters not to get up in arms about the plan, saying that several “options” will be presented to insure that stations can distribute true digital services. The FCC chairman hasn’t made the plan public, but his staff has briefed Capitol Hill and industry officials on initial details.
Powell and his staff are pursuing the controversial idea because they are under enormous pressure from some in Congress, other telecommunications industries and even the White House to reclaim broadcasters’ analog channels and auction them off for new cutting edge wireless businesses and to cut the deficit.
They will also hand over some of the channels to police and other emergency services. Because of a shortage of communications channels, these essential services are desperate for new capacity. Fritts says the government is kidding itself by predicting a windfall from future channel sales if the handful of completed selloffs are any indication. “Auctions have fallen enormously short of what was anticipated,” he says.
He praised Powell for broadcast-friendly steps taken during the past two years to speed the transition, such as requiring most TVs to be equipped for over-the-air digital and approving content-protection technology to block illegal Internet streaming of television shows.
But compounding broadcasters disappointment is the foot-dragging on multicast mustcarry. “This is snatching defeat from jaws of victory,” Fritts says. “Broadcasters thought we were on track.” Powell said broadcasters are over dramatizing because some station owners "enjoy sitting on two sets of spectrum."
As a whole, he says, broadcasters would benefit because they would no longer pay electric costs of transmitting both an analog and digital channel and from the simple certainty of knowing when the transition to DTV would end.