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Time to move on DTV

Over four years ago, the FCC established a new digital-transmission standard for the country, mandated an aggressive DTV implementation program for the broadcast industry, and set 2006 as the date by which conventional television service would be phased out. Although hopes were high, the DTV transition clearly has been slower and more uncertain and contentious than expected.

It has been beset by first-generation consumer equipment that did not always perform optimally, a lack of digital programming that might compel purchases of expensive DTV sets, division within the broadcast industry over elements of the standard, and a failure to resolve such key issues as cable interoperability, carriage and copy protection.

However, with the dawning of a new year, there is reason to believe that the transition finally might begin to gather steam. First, the broadcast industry has reached a consensus to retain the current transmission standard

(8-VSB), to make the investment necessary to cure remaining transmission concerns (notably, indoor reception and portability), and perhaps to commence an effort to vigorously promote the advantages of DTV to the viewing audience. Moreover, over two-thirds of the nation is already served by digital signals, with further growth certain to follow. Nevertheless, given all the past uncertainties, I think a case can be made for granting smaller broadcasters a brief extension in the digital build-out schedule.

Second, a new FCC is just beginning to take shape, raising the hope that digital television might become something that it has never been at the commission: a priority item. While a Republican-led agency understandably may be reluctant to dictate the future course of DTV, it can play an essential role in bringing various video industries together to discuss and ultimately surmount the continuing obstacles. Moreover, the FCC could use its "bully pulpit" to encourage the private sector to move the transition forward.

Some might suggest that a laissez-faire approach would be preferable, avoiding any suggestion of an "industrial policy." However, this viewpoint overlooks the unique, decade-long partnership between government and industry that caused DTV to happen not only in the United States but, due to our technical leadership, around the world as well.

Third, set manufacturers now can produce more high-quality digital equipment, safe in the knowledge that it will not be made obsolete by changes in the standard. Already, new generations of receivers are showing marked improvements. In addition, DTV-set prices are beginning to fall within the range of the average American's pocketbook. The pace of consumer sales would be further stimulated by an assurance that digital receivers will work with all media, including cable.

Fourth, outstanding sports attractions (such as the Masters golf tournament, the U.S. Open tennis and NCAA Final Four basketball tournaments and the NFL Super Bowl) have been presented in dramatic wide-screen HDTV, truly a whole new viewing experience. In addition, the broadcast networks (especially CBS) are converting their prime time programming, shot in 35mm cinematography, to high-definition (and even experimenting in HD production on a cost-saving basis). Further, major motion pictures have been delivered in digital format by broadcast, cable (especially Time Warner) and satellite networks. If agreement can be reached on the nagging copy-protection issue, many more will be shown. More than anything else, the transition would be spurred by the availability of compelling digital programs.

In this regard, video programmers also may develop shows in standard-definition format (the digital equivalent to today's transmission quality), particularly during daytime hours. And without question, data transmission of all kinds (including interactive material) will be delivered, providing audiences with valuable content and broadcasters with a second revenue stream. To date, a number of data consortia have been formed, with more on the way (even perhaps between broadcast networks and their affiliates).

What clearly is needed to make the DTV transition a success is a firm commitment by both government and industry to make it happen-and soon. This will take continuing vision and leadership-vision to perceive the tremendous public and business benefits that lie ahead with this new technology and
leadership to resolve expeditiously the outstanding issues.

The opportunity to get the job done presents itself today as never before. It is an opportunity that, in the public interest, should not be missed.