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Powell Criticizes CE Biz On DTV Tuner Response

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell blasted the consumer electronics industry this month for failing to adhere to his timetable for placing digital tuners in television sets.

Earlier, Powell had challenged the CE industry for being the only industry not to respond to a stepped-up DTV timetable he issued last April.

In response, the Consumer Electronics Association offered a counterproposal that sought to shift some of the burden for failing to deliver a universal system for cable/CE-equipment interoperability onto the cable industry.

The CEA proposed that set makers install digital-TV tuners in cable-compatible sets within 18 months of an agreement with the cable industry allowing for the manufacture of “plug-and-play” televisions that would be compatible with all digital cable systems in the nation. In addition, CEA said most of its manufacturers voluntarily plan to market and promote strongly at least one set-top box that can receive and decode digital television signals by Dec. 31, 2003.

But Powell took exception to the counterproposal, seeing it as an attempt to use his timetable as a negotiation tool. He said CEA’s response was “so limited, and loaded down with so many conditions, that I believe it amounts to no commitment at all.”

Powell added, “Not only does the consumer electronics industry demand that certain issues be resolved before they act, they demand that they be resolved to their satisfaction. Other industries could have made similar demands. Thankfully, they did not.”

In April, Powell asked set makers to voluntarily equip one-half of all 36-inch and larger sets with digital-TV tuners by Jan. 1, 2004; 100 percent by Jan. 1, 2005; and all sets 13 inches and larger by Dec. 31, 2006.

Powell’s proposal to set makers was part of a broader initiative urging all sectors of the television business to step up their efforts to support digital TV. The top 10 cable operators in the country agreed to carry up to five DTV programming services at the beginning of next year.

Major network broadcasters to large markets have generally agreed to pass through network digital TV, and the big broadcast and cable networks have agreed to provide at least 50 percent of their prime time schedules in high-definition or interactive programming this fall.

But CEA president Gary Shapiro said that was not enough.

“With more than 70 percent of Americans currently receiving their primary video signal through cable, CEA remains convinced that a successful DTV transition is dependent on the adoption and implementation of a nationwide standard for sending HDTV over cable,” said Shapiro. “Our approach reflects the critical importance of compatibility between digital cable systems and availability of DTV products. CEA believes the current lack of compatibility is the single largest remaining obstacle to the DTV transition.”

Spokesman for several set makers echoed Shapiro’s concerns, while applauding Powell’s call to action.

“We think it makes sense to integrate digital tuners in displays where it makes a difference — 32-inch and above. It would be great if every DTV manufacturer had at least one integrated set,” stated Dave Arland, spokesman for Thomson Multimedia. “What continues to be a mystery to us is why the cable industry’s views on compatibility continues to be so different.”

At Thomson’s recent RCA Scenium line show, Eric Meurice, Thomson worldwide TV executive VP, said his company also supports secure interfaces for content protection on DTV products and is developing improved methods for content control, including its previously announced SmartRight system.

The company, which also has major interests in the broadcasting, motion picture production industries, also said it supports the use of proposed broadcast flags inserted into broadcast content to trigger content protection mechanisms. However, Thomson said it is concerned that those flags not be used to eliminate or restrict consumers’ fair use rights to record digital programming for their own use.

Similar to Thomson’s view, Zenith senior VP Richard Lewis said his company supports CEA’s position on cable compatibility, but “we believe that manufacturers need to go further in driving more ATSC tuners into the marketplace sooner, as a key element of a successful and timely transition.”

In related news, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) is planning to introduce legislation in September that will address several digital-TV-transition issues, including cable compatibility and content protection.

Tauzin was reportedly planning to offer a digital-television bill that would address cable compatibility with DTV sets, carriage of digital broadcast signals, inclusion of off-air digital-TV tuners in digital-TV sets, copyright protection of digital content and TV-station pass-through of network-generated high-definition programming.