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Powell plan gains support

After unveiling an ambitious plan to speed the digital TV transition, FCC Chairman Michael Powell is winning support from at least two of the three principals in the DTV transition.

Although skeptics questioned whether Powell could get broadcasters, multichannel providers and TV set makers on board with his voluntary plan, he has already won early support from broadcasters and manufacturers without twisting arms. The chairman himself, however, admits no surprise.

"All of them have something to gain," Powell told reporters after an NAB 2002 breakfast Tuesday. "Sometimes all you need is leadership. It's like any negotiation."

Self-interest as a spur to unity was a theme of this week's show, with NAB President Eddie Fritts urging networks to rejoin the fold (see page 8) and AOL Time Warner CEO-designate Richard Parsons saying the feud between broadcasting and cable was self defeating (see page 9).

Powell's plan may be voluntary, but he made it clear that speeding the transition is crucial.

"This transition is not just important to broadcasting. It's important to America and it's been languishing for far too long," he said during an earlier Q&A session with ABC anchor Sam Donaldson.

Last week, Powell proposed a four-point plan setting specific levels of digital service for broadcasters, cable, DBS and TV set manufacturers. Compliance is voluntary, but Powell will call in leaders from each sector in the coming weeks to solicit firm commitments.

"Every one of those segments has to step up to the plate and do things they don't like and do some things they will like. I personally think we're close."

Although industry officials have speculated that Powell will hold out the threat of tougher laws or regulations to get everybody on board, he insists there will be no swinging of bureaucratic clubs.

"This is completely voluntary," he said.

Powell said industries' long-standing reluctance to take on new obligations is quickly eroding. It's "simply not true" that the parties are unwilling to go along, he said.

Still the threat of government-enforced mandates remains, even if they won't be directed at uncooperative parties. "There's always the threat of tougher rules," Powell conceded. " We're regulators."

Of course, Congress also has its own power to threaten any side that plants its heels. "If cable blows this off we're likely to see legislation on must-carry" of broadcast signals, said Covington & Burling attorney Ellen Goodman.

Cable operators worry that the plan obligates them to devote spectrum to local broadcasters who will use digital multicast capabilities for little more than repeats of prime time dramas and sitcoms.

Cable has been more hesitant to jump on the bandwagon than the other sides. National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Robert Sachs called Powell's ideas "thought provoking" but cautioned they "warrant further consideration."

If reaction from the broadcasters and the consumer equipment industry is any indication, however, the industries may be ready to set their disputes aside.

"My immediate reaction was, 'Hallelujah!' " said NAB attorney Valerie Schulte. "Maybe we have a chance to get this thing going."

After initially expressing reluctance to abandon its opposition to phased-in digital tuner requirements for new TV sets, the Consumer Electronics Association Tuesday pledged to discuss the plan "with our manufacturers as soon as possible and examine how we can support our mutual goal of expediting the transition to digital television." Equipment manufacturers, according to industry sources, pressed CEA President Gary Shapiro not to make the tuner mandate an obstacle to moving forward.

Rick Chessen, head of the FCC DTV task force, provided some much-needed clarification of cable operators' call to carry "up to five" digital channels. Specifically that means all of the available digital channels in their market, but no obligation to carry no more than five. Chessen reiterated that local broadcast stations do not necessarily need carriage if operators have access to digital programming from five cable nets.

Powell made it clear this plan won't resolve other DTV policy disputes, such as broadcasters' demand for cable carriage of both analog and digital signals during the switch to DTV, how to define what is contained in broadcasters' "primary" signal, and creating copy-protection standards.

The lack of a broadcast carriage mandate alarmed George DeVault, president of Holston Valley Broadcasting, which owns TV and radio stations in East Tennessee. "Even in small markets there will be more than five digital channels," he said, noting Holston Valley will spend $275,000 to bring a station online with high-definition signals, as Powell's plan requires. "It would be helpful to have an understanding that cable will carry it."

Another problem for small-market broadcasters: Only cable systems retrofitted for digital tiers would be obligated to carry any digital programming. "Most smaller systems haven't been upgraded," complained Tom Van Wazer, who represents broadcasters for Sidley Austin Brown & Wood. Because the economics are tougher on smaller markets, Van Wazer called on the FCC to create a blanket waiver for small stations.