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Ferree TV: FCC Defends DTV Plan

Media Bureau chief Ken Ferree isn't surprised by broadcasters' resistance to a Federal Communications Commission staff plan to speed the digital-TV transition and reclaim TV stations' old analog channels. "They would rather eat their children than give up that spectrum," he told reporters Wednesday.

Punctuated with remarks that were blunt, even for the colorful Ferree, the chief complained that key points of the plan have been mischaracterized by broadcasters and the press.

The aim of the so-called (at least by the media) Powell Plan--after FCC Chairman Michael Powell--is to advance the day when enough consumers get DTV that it meets the government's long-standing trigger for reclaiming analog channels and auctioning them to wireless companies and others.

The plan would work by allowing the government to count cable-delivered DTV broadcast signals toward the 85% consumer penetration test even when they have been converted from a digital to an analog version.

The move would greatly speed the day when 85% of viewers in a market are counted as served by digital, but would not necessarily bring the bulk of them the super-fine high-definition pictures that digital allows.

"We’d love for people to get pretty pictures, but this part of the transition is not really about that," he said. "It’s just about trying to make sure sets work" after analog channels go away.

Ferree said it is wrong to characterize the plan as a change in DTV rules because the FCC has never said how it would define 85%. Ferree said it's also wrong to say that Congress meant only "beautiful pictures" count toward the 85% test.

Making sure sets work after the plug is pulled on analog has been one of the thorniest issues of the DTV transition.

The biggest hurdle to Ferree's plan is the nearly 15% of Americans who get no cable or other pay-TV and rely solely on over-their-air reception.

Millions more have second and third sets not plugged into cable or satellite service. Ferree suggests those sets be equipped with digital-to-analog converters to keep them serviceable.

For people too poor to pay for converters, Congress should consider subsidizing the $50-$100 the devices might cost, he said.

If the plan is approved by the FCC commissioners, Ferree says, broadcasters would have to choose by Oct. 11, 2008, either the analog "down conversion" or full digital carriage option, the latter which would deliver HD to whatever number of cable customers have digital sets by then.

The choice would be good for the three-year cable carriage cycle that begins Jan 2009. Originally Ferree envisioned a 2006 kick-in, but thought it would be better to give more time.

The National Association of Broadcasters wasn't happy, even with the three "extra" years. "We appreciate the suggestion that 2009 is a more realistic date for completing the DTV transition," the group said in a statement. "Nonetheless, NAB remains concerned that the Ferree initiative is simply a spectrum reclamation plan that would strand both consumers and broadcasters who have collectively spent billions embracing the best television technology on the planet."

As for Ferree's quip that broadcasters would rather "eat their children" than return channels, NAB would only say the comment was "so utterly ridiculous that it does not deserve a response."