Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell floated a plan Thursday to speed the digital-television
transition, which would obligate cable, direct-broadcast satellite and set makers, as well as
broadcasters, to provide specific levels of digital-TV service.
Although the plan is being billed as voluntary, industry officials speculated that
the threat of tougher legislative mandates in the future for lagging industry
sectors will be used as motivation to get all of the parties on board.
Powell's outline was presented to top lawmakers Thursday. Some in Congress
have suggested that legislation may be needed to garner cross-industry support
for digital TV. Powell's plan is aimed at pushing the industries into agreements that
would finally end disputes now snagging the digital-TV transition and perhaps
negate the need for congressional action.
"I intend to seek commitments along these lines in the near future," Powell
wrote in letters to Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and Rep. Billy Tauzin(R-La.),
chairmen of the Senate and House Commerce Committees.
Specific obligations for each group:
· Programmers: "Big Four" broadcast networks, Home Box Office and
Showtime provide high-definition TV, "value-added" digital TV, multicast or interactive programming
(not unconverted analog) during 50 percent of prime time beginning fall
· TV stations: By Jan. 1, 2003, Big Four affiliates in
the top 100 markets pass through network digital TV with no signal degradation
· Cable systems: Operators with digital tiers carry,
at no cost to stations and programmers, up to five channels with digital
programming during 50 percent of prime time. Channels need not be broadcast.
Subscribers must be offered set-top boxes capable of displaying HDTV. Necessary
connectors for linking to digital-TV sets must be made available.
· DBS: Carry up to five programmers offering digital
during 50 percent of prime time.
· TV manufacturers: One-half of sets 36 inches and larger
have digital-TV tuners by Jan. 1, 2004; 100 percent by Jan. 1, 2005. One-half of sets
25 inches to 35 inches by Jan. 1, 2005. All sets 13 inches and larger by Dec. 31, 2006.
Cable and set manufacturers have resisted specific mandates and officially
expressed some reservations about Powell's outline.
"Chairman Powell has put forward some thought-provoking proposals," said
National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Robert Sachs.
Other ideas "warrant further study."
Broadcasters were more enthusiastic, if only because multichannels and
manufacturers would for the first time face implementation benchmarks, albeit
"It's certainly encouraging. There has to be comprehensive solution that
takes into account cable and DTV tuners," said Greg Schmidt, lobbyist for LIN