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Get moving on DTV, or else

Make progress on the DTV transition or we'll force you to do so, industry executives were told in a private meeting with House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and other top lawmakers last week.

"If there isn't some real progress within the next three to six months, I think they have no choice [but to write a law]," said one executive who attended the meeting.

The Tauzin meeting followed movement on the DTV front in another quarter: The FCC earlier in the week launched a DTV taskforce to try to lower some of the barriers to DTV conversion (see story, page 34).

The meeting focused on three issues, sources said:

  • The need to make digital cable set-top boxes compatible with digital TV sets so that cable operators pass along broadcasters' digital signal to subscribers.
  • A copyright-protection standard for digital content.
  • Legislation, pushed by broadcasters, that would require TV manufacturers to include a digital TV tuner in every new TV set, so all new sets will be DTV-ready.

So far, the cable and consumer electronics industries have been unable to agree on and implement a standard that would allow consumer manufacturers to build digital set-top boxes that allow digital signals to be passed through to all TV sets. Consumer electronics retailers also want to be able to sell set-top boxes that work with all cable systems. Currently, cable operators build set-tops that work only with their systems.

Content providers can't agree with the "5C" companies (Intel, Matsushita, Hitachi, Toshiba and Sony) on a digital copyright standard. Disney, Fox and Viacom want a standard that would keep digital TV content off the Web, while Sony and AOL Time Warner don't consider Internet protection a priority. Sources say Intel is actively blocking a technical specification written by News Corp./Fox that would protect DTV content from being copied and distributed via the Internet.

Among the heads of top industry trade associations attending were NAB's Eddie Fritts, NCTA's Robert Sachs, MPAA's Jack Valenti and CEA's Gary Shapiro. Also present were APTS President John Lawson; ALTV General Counsel Bob Branson; CBS Senior Vice President Martin Franks; Wiley, Rein & Fielding founding partner Richard Wiley; Intel top engineer Brendan Traw; and Marsha MacBride, chief of staff to FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

The meeting precedes an Oct. 18 hearing on what can be done to ensure that broadcasters convert to digital in time to make FCC deadlines. The FCC expects all broadcasters to offer analog and digital signals by May 2002 and to hand back their analog spectrum by 2006.

Small-market broadcasters have already told the FCC they are unlikely to be able to convert their stations by May, given economic woes and equipment shortages.