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What's holding up high-definition TV? Three major problems remain unresolved: stations unable to afford new equipment have resorted to less-expensive resolution; disagreements concerning protecting digital contents appear headed for Congressional action; and opponents of mandating digital TV tuners in new sets are threatening to take the issue to court. (Mass Media).

ALTHOUGH high-definition television's promise of wide, movie-like pictures with natural color and crisp, sharp detail was first proposed more than 20 years ago, only in the last few years has its promise approached reality. Eddie Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, representing 7,600 radio and TV stations, has long lobbied Congress to provide every TV station with a digital channel. According to Fritts, "Congress .. . thought about it, studied it, and [finally in 1996] mandated broadcasters to transition to digital TV." Congress gave every television station a second channel with the obligation to build a digital station to broadcast HDTV, and, in exchange for the new channels, stations would return their original analog channels to the Federal Communications Commission for auction. Subsequently, the FCC requested stations in the top 30 markets to broadcast digitally by Nov. 1, 1999, and most other stations to inaugurate digital television (DTV) by May 1, 2002.

On April 4, 2002, FCC Chairman Michael Powell outlined his plan for DTV in letters to Ernest Hollings (D.-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Billy Tauzin (R.-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Powell expected the four major networks, HBO, and Showtime to provide HDTV during 50% of prime time by the fall of 2002. Network affiliates in the top 100 markets would provide DTV with no signal degradation by Jan. 1, 2003. Cable systems with digital tiers would carry, at no cost to stations and programmers, up to five channels with digital programming during 50% of prime time, and they would offer subscribers set-top boxes capable of displaying HDTV and connectors necessary to link to DTV sets. Satellite companies would have to carry up to five programs offering digital during 50% of prime time. TV manufacturers would provide DTV tuners with half of large sets by Jan. 1, 2004; all large sets by Jan. 1, 2005; half of medium-sized sets by Jan. 1, 2005; and all sets 13 inches and larger by Dec. 31, 2006.

Powell indicated that his plan did not preclude new DTV rules, and the FCC would continue to regulate mandatory cable carriage of local DTV signals, copy protection, "plug-and-play" TV sets, and various other measures. After an Apr. 9, 2002, meeting with the National Association of Broadcasters, he told reporters that the transition to DTV "is not important just to broadcasters. It is important to America and it has been languishing far too long." Although Powell termed the plan "completely voluntary," he emphasized that "there is always the threat of tougher rules. After all, we are regulators."

On May 17, the FCC approved procedures for substantial fines and harsher procedures; however, it wouldn't immediately levy tougher sanctions. Stations denied waivers would receive a letter of admonishment requiring them to report regularly on their progress. Admonished stations failing to meet digital deadlines would receive a notice of apparent liability for fines and an ultimatum to meet a series of 30-day construction milestones. The FCC could revoke the construction permit for any station failing to broadcast digitally a year after admonishment.

Powell considers the sanctions to be tough enough to preclude a station owner's temptation to ignore the digital conversion obligations. "While there are opportunities for waivers, the leash is short. We are willing to be quite tough if need be." At present, though, many stations granted FCC extensions have made little progress towards getting a digital signal on the air.

Digital television transition involves three principal groups or "players"--broadcasters, multichannel providers, and TV set manufacturers--all with various agendas and concerns. The first major problem was the FCC's mandate to broadcasters to provide DTV by May, 2002. Of 1,300 full-power commercial licensees, 863 considered the deadline unrealistic and asked for more time. Lack of equipment, construction crew shortages, and financing shortfalls supported requests for extended deadlines. The FCC could optionally agree to two six-month extensions to licensees providing documentation of equipment, legal, and/or zoning problems, lack of financing, or natural disasters and a projected date for providing DTV.

The estimated conventional digital facility cost of nearly $3,000,000 challenges small-market broadcasters, of whom 400 have given financial woes as the primary reason for requests for delays. Although the FCC proposed a plan of sanctions including fines or license revocation for stations failing to meet the May deadline, the commission has granted six-month waivers to 544 stations and asked for more information from 303 that are expected to get the waivers once they submit details of problems and provide a timetable. Among stations in the top 30 markets, the FCC will very likely extend waivers to five stations having zoning disputes or technical interference.

A second major problem concerns the FCC's granting permission to some stations to transmit DTV at low power. In November, 2001, low-power transmission really escalated when the FCC ruled that commercial stations could continue low-power transmission beyond the original Dec. 31, 2004, deadline. The highest-utilized HDTV resolution, 1080i, allows 1,080 lines per screen, whereas "progressive" transmission requires resolution as low as 480 lines. Although low-power transmission is much less expensive, it is subject to interference and therefore less effective. Approximately 30% of the more than 400 DTV stations broadcasting at low power reach very few homes.

Despite the cable industry's doubts about giving up channel space to provide digital programming, on May 8, the top 10 cable operators pledged to carry at least five high-definition signals by Jan. 1, 2003, in large market stations having upgraded their systems to digital. Thus, HDTV would reach more than 85% of cable customers in over 59,000,000 homes. However, the announcement failed to state whether stations would carry the highest-utilized HDTV resolution standard of 1080i or lower-resolution formats.

Since Nov. 1, 1999, the Big Four networks--CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox--in the top 30 markets have offered digital signals, and 410 commercial and noncommercial stations are now digital, 113 of them among the 119 affiliates of the Big Four. Other top-market stations without digital signals have verified with the .FCC that they have problems with equipment, interference, or zoning. CBS offers most of its prime-time lineup and several sports events in high definition. All of ABC's filmed programs are in high definition. NBC emphasizes sports--the Olympics, several National Basketball Association games, and the Triple Crown horse races--and it has pledged to expand prime-time coverage in 2003. Fox will offer high definition in prime time, though most of those programs will be in 480p.

Pay-television networks, such as Home Box Office and Showtime, presently provide HDTV channels, and Discovery, which already has 115 HD rifles, plans to provide 24-hour HDTV. Powell has asked currently upgraded cable systems to add digital tiers to carry "at no extra cost" at least five digital channels during 50% of prime time. Time-Warner Cable is providing HDTV service to 5,000,000 homes in more than 40 markets so that 98% of its customers can now receive HDTV.

PBS signed its first digital-carriable agreement with Time-Warner Cable nearly two years ago, and it recently signed a second agreement with MSO Insight Communications giving carriage to 31 public-TV stations on Insight's digital tiers. According to Jennifer Fabian Browning, PBS senior director of digital cable and direct-broadcast-satellite strategy, 73 PBS digital stations now cover over 55% of U.S. households with a public-TV signal. However, PBS is having financial difficulties: the transfer to digital will cost $1,800,000,000 and it has raised only $755,000,000. John Lawson, president of the Association of Public TV Stations, estimates that nearly 30% of PBS stations will miss the deadline if the government fails to help close the $1,000,000,000 gap. Lawson told the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee that, even with Federal help, many stations will make the transition with bare-minimum power requirements. All in all, more than 400 commercial and noncommercial DTV stations are now on the air.

Protecting digital content

Although purveyors obviously must protect digital content from free distribution, protection methods remain controversial. On June 8, 2002, 230 members of a Broadcast Discussion Working Group (BDWG) approved using "the broadcast flag"--technology that would alert copying devices such as digital TV recorders and computers that digital TV programs cannot be copied and redistributed over the Internet. Movie studios and broadcast networks insist that, without the flag or some similar device, delivery of digital content over the air would leave them vulnerable to widespread copying.

The Copyright Protection Technical Working Group, BDWG's parent organization, approved the report. Hollings intends to introduce a bill that would require industries to agree on a solution for digital copy protection within 18 months of the bill's passage, or he would recommend Congressional intervention. Consumer and technology groups have stated that they will attempt to defeat any such bill. Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Tauzin, acknowledged dissenting opinions about the technology--for example, consumer groups such as Electronic Frontier Foundation and Digital Consumer would prefer no copyright standards. Set manufacturers challenged that the copy protection standards would not only block illegal Internet streaming, but infringe on consumers' legitimate home recording rights. In May, 2002, Tauzin gave the industries a July 15 deadline to agree on a solution. After broadcasters, consumer electronics manufacturers, TV and movie producers, and technology groups failed to have a solution by mid July, he announced that apparently only wide-ranging legislation would get things moving. Tauzin and John Dingell (D.-Mich.), the House Energy and Commerce Committee's top Democrat, plan to introduce a DTV bill after Tauzin holds a series of hearings. Moreover, Hollings, Tauzin, and Dingell sent letters to Powell stating that, "given the importance of broadcast content protection in expediting the digital TV transition, it is imperative that the FCC quickly arrive at a final resolution and implementation."

At its Aug. 8, 2002, meeting, the FCC approved strong copy-protection measures to prevent widespread copying of content over the Internet. Although the measures could become mandatory by 2003, the FCC failed to give details for carrying out methods to prevent copying. The FCC could propose that equipment manufacturers sign licensing agreements to limit home copying. However, both consumer groups and manufacturers vow to fight the "broadcast flag" plan or any other scheme to encode station signals either to block or limit duplicating programs on digital recorders. All of this probably means that it will take Congress to untangle the mess once the industries attempt to agree on the method.

The second major issue broadcasters consider critical to the successful transition to DTV is that new sets must be equipped to receive it. Currently, most TV manufacturers refuse to incorporate digital tuners in new sets. Measures adopted by the FCC on Aug. 8, 2002, ensured TV buyers that new sets would indeed be capable of receiving DTV. Fritts believes that the FCC's action concerning digital tuners "represents the most-important action on digital TV since adoption of the DTV standard in 1996." The Consumer Electronics Association plans to fight the decision in court. CEA president Gary Shapiro believes that the requirement could add $250 to the price of a TV set. On the other hand, CEA members Zenith and Thompson told the FCC they could accept the mandate. Because Zenith and Thompson were willing to go along with the FCC, the commission added additional time to the phase-in schedule by moving the large set deadline from January to July, 2004. All sets are to be equipped by July 1, 2007, rather than Dec. 31, 2006.

Hollings, Tauzin, and Dingell maintain that the All Channel Receiver Act requiring set manufacturers to add UHF to sets provided the FCC with the authority to mandate a digital tuner. The FCC further contends that act gives it the authority to impose any receiver standards necessary to ensure that sets can receive all allocated frequencies. The CEA refutes this with the argument that, when the act was originally passed in the 1960s, broadcasters exclusively delivered TV, and the government had a compelling interest in making certain that UHF could be received. So, again, Congress may have to step in to resolve the dispute.

When will the promise of high-definition television become a reality? The FCC originally requested all TV stations to inaugurate DTV by May 1, 2002. At this point, far too many stations have failed to meet the deadline. Three major problems remain unsolved: stations unable to afford new equipment for 1080i HDTV have resorted to less-expensive 480i resolution, more or less useless beyond close proximity to transmitters; disagreements concerning protecting digital content appear headed for Congressional action; and mandating DTV tuners in new sets has the Consumer Electronics Association threatening to fight the DTV decision in U.S. District Court in Washington. Although it looks as if a court decision might settle one problem, very likely Congress will be the final adjudicator. Hollings is working on a bill that should come before Congress early this year.

Powell believes that "everybody wants high-definition TV" and the "digital revolution is genuine and real." Unfortunately for HDTV advocates, controversy continues to prevail among various industries and consumer groups, and the FCC seems to lack sufficient clout to get the revolution underway. So, the "view of the future" may indeed be in the future--the distant future.

Raymond L Fischer, Mass Media Editor of USA Today, is professor emeritus of communication, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.
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Author:Fischer, Raymond L.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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