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DTV's point man at FCC

With so many problems facing the transition to digital television, Rick Chessen's new job might seem more punishment than prize. But Chessen, who heads the FCC's DTV task force, relishes the chance to help push, pull and bargain the affected industries into TV's next era.

"If you love television and love public policy, I can't think of a better job," says Chessen.

His interest in TV's fate isn't purely professional. "I'm kind of a TV freak," he says, rattling off a long list of favorite shows from traditional network sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond
to ironic cable fare The Daily Show
to kids show SpongeBob SquarePants, which he watches with his children. Cooking shows like Emeril
and Iron Chef
are special favorites, thanks to a culinary interest inherited from his dad, who has run "Deli-Ca-Chessen's" in Minneapolis for 20 years.

Chessen was tapped to head the DTV task force after seven years as an FCC staffer—interrupted by a short stint at interactive-television startup RespondTV.

Given his love for television, it was a cinch Chessen would specialize in media work after graduating from Harvard Law in 1986. He joined a Chicago firm with a large media practice, transferring to its Washington office in 1992. When the media clients started drying up, he applied to the FCC and had little trouble winning a job at the Cable Services Bureau, thanks to the hiring boom spurred by the 1992 Cable Act.

Chessen hopes DTV fares better than the first new technology he helped oversee: video dial tone, which flopped because of the many problems associated with delivering TV programming over phone lines. He also helped write access rules for telecommunications lines inside apartment and office buildings and for "V-Chip" technology that allows parents to block objectionable programming.

He joined Democratic Commissioner Gloria Tristani's staff as senior legal adviser in '97. Three years later, he was lured to the private sector to help San Francisco-based RespondTV grapple with the legal issues posed by marketing ITV.

Chessen returned to the FCC after five months of commuting between Washington, where his family remained, and the West Coast. Although the dot-com crash and RespondTV's descent into a still-pending "restructuring" make his return seem prescient, he says it was motivated chiefly by San Francisco's eye-popping home prices and a realization that he and wife Sonia are "wonks at heart" who consider Washington home. (Sonia is a policy analyst for the Department of Health and Human Services.)

Despite the brevity of his sojourn in the commercial sector, Chessen says the exposure gave him insight valuable in his current job. "Things might be happening in a longer time frame than some of us thought and hoped for, but I've seen the digital-television stuff coming, and I do think it's the future."

It also gave him the ability to see policy issues from the perspective of business people, who must make money despite constraints imposed by the government.

Even with the thorny problems—the lack of cable-operable DTV sets, copy-protection disputes, the need to improve the transmission standard—he remains hopeful the 2002 deadline will be a catalyst for progress in the transition. With nearly all stations obligated to get on the air with DTV in May, consumers may finally have sufficient incentive to buy DTV sets or converters that work with analog televisions. "By allowing stations to go digital at less than maximum power, we've done a lot to get more on the air rather than seeking waivers from the obligations."

Chessen hopes to familiarize his colleagues with the technology by demonstrating more DTV equipment at the FCC. "If you're going to regulate the technology, it's one thing to read about it, but it's much better to see how all the pieces work with each other."