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Wanted: Clear DTV picture

For a little more than a month, visitors to FCC headquarters in Washington have been greeted by an impressive, 51-inch Panasonic high-definition TV receiver with picture beamed over channel 35 courtesy of Viacom and the broadcast industry's DTV trade group.

The broadcasts are a demonstration conducted by the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) via the digital allotment of Viacom UPN affiliate WDCA-TV Washington—and occasionally other D.C. DT stations—and are bringing FCC commissioners and their staff a vivid, daily, wide-screen dose of football games, documentaries and other fare.

The high-definition display symbolizes to many broadcasters that, after years of what they see as neglect, the government is finally making a priority of the transition to digital TV.

"For the first time in two administrations, we appear to have an FCC chairman concerned about the rollout of DTV," says David Donovan, MSTV's newly minted president.

Broadcasters have repeatedly called on the FCC to do more to speed the rollout, arguing that the cable and consumer equipment industries aren't doing their part to make the switch a success. Lingering snags on that front: Industry disputes still prevent the construction of DTV sets that work with cable, and copy-protection safeguards still aren't secure enough to satisfy the movie industry.

In the meantime, tight deadlines for inaugurating DTV services are forcing TV stations to spend millions building new towers and digital transmission facilities.

More-concrete FCC action is under way.

Last week, agency Chairman Michael Powell named FCC attorney Rick Chessen to head a new DTV task force aimed at settling many of the transition's problems.

Broadcasters are optimistic that Chessen's team will prod the FCC to establish a streamlined approval process for small-market stations seeking to delay their May rollout obligation.

Stations that show hardship—such as inability to pay for the transition, difficulty obtaining digital transmission equipment and lack of local zoning permits—can already apply for waivers on a case-by-case basis. The NAB worries, however, that a crush of waiver requests will swamp the FCC if a simple approval process isn't established.

The NAB also is asking the FCC to relax stations' 2004 deadline for duplicating their analog footprint with digital signals and for maximizing the coverage area of UHF DTV transmissions.

Even if those demands are met, Powell aide Susan Eid said last week that the agency is pushing all industries to shorten their lists of other demands. Broadcasters, for instance, should drop their insistence that cable carry both analog and digital TV signals unless they can prove that such a requirement would prod more consumers to buy DTV sets.

"We've seen no evidence of fallout from a lack of digital carriage requirements," she said.

Last week, the cable industry offered a fledgling step to promote DTV. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association announced that cable operators across the country will work with set-top box suppliers to offer the devices in consumer electronics stores. Consumers will be able to buy boxes combining traditional channel-surfing functions with new options such as personal video recording and DVD players.

The Consumers Electronics Association, which represents a broader array of manufacturers, criticized the initiative as a ploy to give cable-allied equipment makers a head start over competitors. "This is a far distance from the competitive retail market our industry envisioned," said Michael Petricone, CEA vice president of technology policy.

CEA has repeatedly complained that the cable industry has not completed "open-cable" specifications that will allow any manufacturer to design boxes that will be compatible with all cable systems.

FCC Cable Services Bureau Chief Ken Ferree urged the NCTA to complete and commit to open-cable specifications.