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Alfred Sikes: HDTV Advocate Belatedly Buys In

It's a milestone few will note, but its relevance can't be ignored: In January, Al Sikes bought an HDTV television set.

About a decade ago, when he served as Republican chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Sikes penned the Magna Carta of TV broadcasters' analog-to-digital transition that, in due course, the Congress and his successors would substantially embrace.

Like a growing number of consumers, Sikes visited his local Circuit City store and purchased a wide-screen display and a standalone receiver.

Yet even for someone whom most would consider an expert, he found the shopping experience intimidating.

"It really is," Sikes said. "One person commented that it's now more complicated to buy a television set than a PC. I think there is probably some truth to that."

That Sikes took until 2003 to buy an HDTV set, when the transition is supposed to be wrapped up by Dec. 31, 2006, suggests the government-imposed migration remains in the early-adopter stage — more caterpillar than butterfly.

But with more and more local TV stations beaming digital signals, and more and more primetime hours shot in the HDTV format, mass-market adoption is not far away, Sikes argued.

"To say that I am pleased that it has taken until 2003 to get to a prospective tipping point, I think, would probably be in error, because I have been disappointed that it took us this long to get to the prospective tipping point," Sikes said. "But I do think we are at that point, and I am encouraged as I look a few years down the road."

After leaving the FCC in early 1993, with the end of the first Bush administration, Sikes returned to his business roots. The former radio-station owner joined Hearst Corp. in New York City as president of its interactive media division, tasked with fusing Hearst's far-flung media empire to the Internet and making strategic investments in online properties.

"We started companies. We invested in companies. We were early investors in Netscape and in So we had some great early to mid-investments," he said.

Earlier in the year, he stepped back, becoming a consultant to Hearst.

Current outside positions include chairman of the Reading Excellence and Discovery Foundation (which provides one-on-one tutoring for kids with weak reading skills) and a board seat with Hughes Electronics Corp., parent of the No. 1 direct-broadcast satellite company, DirecTV Inc.

"I am dividing my time between the farm my wife and I have on Chesapeake Bay, which is on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and New York City," he said.

In October 2001, EchoStar Communications Corp. signed a deal to buy Hughes in an effort to fortify the much smaller DBS world in its battle with the cable colossus. A year later, both the FCC and the Justice Department effectively rejected the deal as anti-competitive, especially with regard to rural markets.

Sikes looked at it differently. "I think it was surprising that there was not more receptivity to a … brokered compromise. I simply look at the market as the multichannel market, not as the satellite market or the cable market."

Hughes recently agreed to yield de facto control to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. in a $6.6 billion deal awaiting regulatory approval by the FCC and the Justice Department.

In his time as the top communications regulator, Sikes attempted to alter the regulatory landscape through novel creations. His legacy at the FCC included "video dialtone," an effort to induce local phone companies to enter the cable business at a time when federal law and FCC rules banned their participation.

Institutional loyalty generally runs high among FCC alumni. Some can't imagine the commission not overseeing the modern media-telecom world. But Sikes can.

"I think you could certainly quite rationally sunset the FCC, and at the end of the sunset period have a much narrower agency that did some spectrum police work and the like," he said.