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FCC’s Powell Pushes DTV Transition Plan

FCC chairman Michael Powell unveiled a plan, prior to last week’s NAB show, that he hopes will break the digital TV logjam and bring the technology to a majority of the American consumers.

The key proposal in the plan is that ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, as well as HBO and Showtime, provide high-definition or “other value-added DTV programming” during at least 50 percent of their prime time schedule during the 2002-03 season.

The plan, which was outlined in a letter to Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ernest Hollings (D-SC) and other lawmakers is “voluntary” and would not prejudge the outcome of pending digital TV rulemakings.

A key date in the plan is Jan. 1, 2003. At that time the affiliates of the major networks in the top 100 markets would have to install the equipment to pass through HDTV programming if that is what the networks provide. Also on that date cable systems with 750 megahertz of capacity would offer to carry free-of-charge the HDTV signals of the top five TV stations, or other digital programming services that offer HDTV during at least 50 percent of prime time. In addition, on that date DBS suppliers would have to carry five digital programming services that offer HDTV during at least 50 percent of prime time.

Powell is also calling for the installation of off-air digital TV tuners in new sets. By January 1, 2004, 50 percent of sets 36 inches and larger would have digital TV tuners. A year later all such sets would need tuners and by December 31, 2006 all new sets 13 inches and larger would need digital-TV tuners.

For its part the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, National Association of Broadcasters and CEA were cautiously optimistic.

In a prepared statement, while applauding the move by Powell, CEA technology policy VP Michael Petricone commented that the “proposed tuner mandate is unnecessary. Compelling programming is the key to DTV tuner adoption.” He cited CEA sales figures that show that demand for integrated digital TVs and set-top boxes is “directly related to the amount of available high-definition programming.”

Petricone also added that the tuner mandate “will undercut consumer choice. Currently consumers can choose from over 350 digital television products at a wide range of price points.”

He urged Powell to focus on “the critical importance of ‘plug and play’ cable compatibility to the DTV transition” and a “firm timetable for implementation.”

—Additional reporting from fellow Reed Business Information publications Broadcasting & Cable and Multichannel News