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Broadcasters Hit On DTV Transition

3/21/2005 02:00:00 AM Eastern

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Speakers at the Consumer Electronics Association's (CEA) 10th HDTV Summit, held here, took the broadcasting industry to task for failing to join with other industries in seeking a hard cutoff date for analog television broadcasting.

“The real issue is not the broadcast industry,” said David Donovan, MSTV's president. “The real issue is the consumer. When we started this process back with the FCC, the goal was to ease the consumer in the shift from analog to digital. Over the years things have shifted. Now it appears the top priority is spectrum reclamation, which understandably is an important goal. But if you are going to make that a top priority what you are going to have to do is deal with the consumer and make that transition easier.”

Arguing on behalf of a hard cutoff date, Rhett Dawson, Information Technology Council's president, said, “Nothing focuses the mind like the hangman's noose or a date certain. If you give us a date certain, I think things will become much more clear, and technology will be able to have a slingshot effect into the new changing world.”

House Committee on Energy and Commerce's chairman Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) joined with Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet's chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in vowing to draft this session legislation to impose a hard analog cutoff date.

Barton said many businesses from multiple industries, except the broadcast industry, “want certainty” on the cutoff date rather than merely waiting until 85 percent of Americans have digital television sets.

Barton said he understands that broadcasters want to maintain the value they offer by providing both analog and digital services, “but just because it's a good value doesn't mean it's good public policy,” he said.

Barton added that his preferences for the bill are to have a Dec. 31, 2006, hard cutoff date, omit multicast must carry, and have a means test for low-income citizens to qualify for “a rebate” to reimburse them for the purchase of a digital to analog converter box. The bill would count all digital cable and satellite households as DTV households.

Barton estimated the reimbursement would affect between 8 million and 10 million households and would cost between $400 million and $500 million.

“If you auction the spectrum for $5 billion to $17 billion, you can afford to pay $400 million or $500 million to make this conversion,” he said.

Also calling for a Dec. 31, 2006, cutoff date was U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“It remains clear to me that now is the time act to expedite the completion of this transition,” said McCain, who was awarded the 2004 DTV Government Leadership Award by the Academy of Digital Television Pioneers, during the summit proceedings.

“We need to take care of Americans with fixed incomes as we undertake this transition,” said McCain. “I pledge to continue to work on behalf of the over-the-air viewers to ensure that no viewers are left behind.”

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), chairman of the subcommittee on Technology, Innovation and Competitiveness, urged the audience to contact their legislators to support the forthcoming hard-date legislation, adding that any senators contacted should be reminded to make sure the bill stays clean of any “poison pill” pork-barrel riders that might threaten its acceptance.

Meanwhile, former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Dick Wiley cautioned against arriving at a cut-off date too quickly.

“We can't just pluck these dates out of the air,” Wiley said during a breakfast speech at the Summit. “We can't be precipitous or cavalier. We have to get a date that makes sense, and it has to end the transition in a way that serves not just political and budgetary considerations, but serves technology, the marketplace” and the viewing public.

Wiley suggested that by issuing a date far enough in advance, manufacturers would have time to produce an ample supply of affordable digital-to-analog conversion devices to meet the needs of consumers faced with losing programming. He later suggested a firm cutoff date of 2009 or 2010.

On another pending DTV topic, CEA's president/CEO Gary Shapiro reminded the audience that the FCC is soon scheduled to decide on the CEA's request to adjust the next phase of the DTV tuner mandate to require all television sets with screen sizes 25 inches to 35 inches to have ATSC tuners by March 1, 2006. Currently, 50 percent of all such TVs are to have tuners by July 1, growing to 100 percent by July 1, 2006.

“If the FCC grants this petition, we believe it will allow for us to sell an additional 3.3 million integrated DTV sets this year, as manufacturers work toward that accelerated 100 percent threshold,” Shapiro said.

Saying the digital television transition is now “well past the tipping point,” Shapiro released the following CEA market forecasts:

  • More than 3 million households have an ATSC tuner, growing to 16 million units by the end of the year, according to CEA market research.

  • Seventy-one percent of consumers who were thinking about buying a new TV are planning to purchase a digital cable-ready set.

  • In 2004 the industry sold 1 million digital-cable-ready DTV sets, and the CEA forecasts that to triple in 2005.

  • The CEA said that more 16.5 million digital television products have been sold since the DTV launch in 1998, representing almost $26 billion in cumulative revenues and means the consumer investment in digital television is more than $30 million.

  • CEA market research predicts 20.2 million DTV products will be sold in 2005.

  • This year consumers will buy more digital televisions than analog televisions, for the first time.

(For coverage of the IP & ©reatvity Conference, held the next day, see www.TWICE.com and the April 4 print edition.)

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