FCC Chairman Michael Powell preached the HDTV gospel at the NCTA convention last week. "You want high-definition television," he told cable's top execs in an on-stage interview with C-SPAN's Brian Lamb. "Everybody [in media entertainment] wants it because the digital revolution is genuine and real."
Under pressure from Powell, the top cable operators have already committed to providing at least five channels of HDTV programming starting next year. "It's an enormous opportunity," he said, "for cable as well or anyone who hopes to be accessing consumers in their home with the products of the future."
Powell suggested that his HDTV evangelism is motivated principally by the government's desire to speed the transition of TV broadcasting from analog to digital. The sooner consumers buy digital TV sets to receive broadcasters' HDTV service, he said, the sooner the government can recover broadcast analog spectrum. "That spectrum is extremely valuable. And the government wants it back so many of these other great digital things we see being experimented with have more breathing room, more spectrum. To get it back, the transition has to succeed."
But Powell said he believes there's consumer demand, perhaps latent, for HDTV's wide screens and high resolution: "When I go into Circuit City, nobody is standing there staring at the 13-inch black-and-white. They are all in that really dark room with the big ones. And if they are not buying it, they are wishing they could buy it."
Powell rejected the notion that his pro-HDTV policy was forcing Americans to buy new sets. "Unless TVs are better built than I think they are, you are going to do that anyway sometime in the next 10 years."
He also refused to blame broadcasters for the slow progress of their analog-to-digital transition. "I think they have challenges in making the transition. It's an expensive one.
"It was always a mistake to think that something as significant as swapping out of the TV sets of at least 85% of all Americans was going to be a broadcast-only proposition." Given that "84% of Americans have cable or DBS, how on earth did anybody think the digital transition would be a broadcast-only phenomenon?"
Nonetheless, he added, broadcasters "could do better." Powell has asked the broadcast networks and their affiliates to meet deadlines for the distribution and broadcast of HDTV. He is also pushing TV-set manufacturers to equip most sets with HDTV tuners by the end of 2006.
Powell's goal is to take the confusion out of the marketplace so retailers can readily answer all the questions potential HDTV-set buyers will ask.