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First things first

FCC Chairman Bill Kennard came close last week to saying something definitive about the digital-television dilemma. In letters to the NAB and MSTV, he urged broadcasters to get on with development of that spectrum, pursuant to the FCC and Congress's intent at the outset: to create a new-but still free-to-the-public-medium for advanced television, including HDTV. He feels that effort is being sidetracked by the debate over 8-VSB and COFDM and broadcasters' ambitions to change the game to mobile, and he clearly doesn't want to reopen a digital Pandora's box that might take years to close.

Neither do we. But with respect, Mr. Chairman, that's only part of the problem. The larger part is that, four years after broadcast of the first DTV signal, there are only 50,000 sets out there that might receive it. That's not just because of a problem with multipath. It's also because the vested interests have outweighed the public interest in getting to an interoperable set that will serve all. The cable TV industry and Hollywood and retailers have been pitted against the consumer electronics industry as one complication after another was added to the mix. Copy protection is the highest hurdle, as programming interests now seek to impose locks that will open only to their keys.

If free broadcasting is to survive-much less flourish-in the digital world, there must be an abundance of low-cost, interoperable digital sets filled to the brim with compelling programming. The first won't happen if the FCC doesn't do something about it-and soon, as this page has counseled from the DTV start. The second won't happen unless broadcasters start paying more attention to programming their DTV franchise.

Meanwhile, the broadband digital media are going like a house afire.

Lack of FCC resolve in bringing the competing industries together has cost the public three years of digital progress. The COFDM diversion has cost another. For free, over-the-air digital broadcasters, there aren't many more to lose.