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It’s Now Prime Time For Digital Television

For the last few years, I’ve been reporting on the tremendous strides made in regard to the digital television (DTV) transition. Without question, 2003 has been a breakthrough year in terms of broadcast industry initiatives, government oversight and consumer acceptance of the next generation of television.

Indeed, DTV’s future looks exceedingly bright and much of the credit must go to a broadcast industry that is embracing the digital promise. Across the country, local broadcasters are diligently responding to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) digital-television initiative by investing billions of dollars in technology to deliver the clear, crisp picture that only digital can deliver.

As of November 2003, there were 1,060 stations transmitting digital signals in 202 of the country’s 210 television markets. More than 99 percent of U.S. households are in television market now receiving a digital-TV signal. Moreover, 82 percent of households are in markets served by five or more digital signals and over 54 percent are in markets with eight or more digital signals. For local TV households, it’s a digital TV bonanza.

I particularly want to commend local broadcasters for working hard to provide high-definition quality programming for their viewers; HD is the gold standard and local broadcasters are mining it for the benefit of viewers. During the 2003-04 television season, over 2,500 hours of high-definition programming will be aired by local broadcasters. The HDTV lineup includes the vast majority of prime-time shows on ABC and CBS while NBC, PBS and WB have each increased their HDTV offerings. Last summer, Fox announced plans to offer at least 50 percent of its prime time schedule in HDTV beginning with the fall 2004 season.

Plus, local stations are also getting into the mix by producing HDTV events such as the Rose Bowl Parade on Tribune Broadcasting stations and news and entertainment programs like “Northwest Backroads” and “Evening Magazine” produced by Belo station KING-TV in Seattle, Washington, and in November 2002, Post-Newsweek station WDIV-TV in Detroit aired the America’s Thanksgiving Parade.

High-definition broadcasts of Monday Night Football, the NHL and NBA playoff games, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the Kentucky Derby and other major sporting events brought a never-dreamed-of sense of being there to fans across the country.

This year’s broadcast of the Super Bowl in high definition will undoubtedly boost sales of DTV sets by the thousands.

Through NAB’s updated Web site, we are helping consumers understand the quality and value of digital television. This site acts as a “one-stop” shop that includes all the information consumers need to make informed decisions on their digital TV purchases, or to find the programs available in digital format on a local station. Local broadcasters are also reaching out to consumers through articles in local daily newspapers, “HDTV Watch Parties,” raffles and local station Web sites.

Along with NAB’s consumer education campaign, there has been remarkable movement on other fronts over the last year that will help deliver the benefits of HDTV to consumers.

In September 2003, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) reported unit sales of DTV products had reached 2.5 million, bringing dollar sales in excess of $4 billion.

In addition, a CEA survey found that 9 million households are likely to purchase HDTV products over the next 18 months. We, of course, want to make sure that consumers purchase the “right” sets, and with a little help from the FCC, Congress and the courts, they will have access to fully integrated sets capable of receiving local broadcasters’ free, over-the-air programming.

The U.S. Appeals Court has affirmed that the FCC’s decision to require manufacturers to include digital tuners in all new television sets is in the best interest of consumers.

In addition, through the tireless work and cooperation of the FCC, the consumer electronics industry and my friends in the cable industry, we now have plug-and-play interoperability standards. Together, these two decisions — tuners and plug and play — will make it possible for a consumer to bring home a digital TV set, hook it up to an antenna or plug it directly into a cable or satellite jack, and enjoy all the high-definition programming their local broadcasters provide. Absent these decisions, a consumer could not do so without the purchase and use of multiple set-top boxes and wires.

More recently, the industry also resolved another piece of the puzzle through the FCC’s adoption of the “broadcast flag” requirement to prevent illegal distribution of HDTV content over the Internet. By offering protections to the creators of HDTV content, we expect to see improvements in the quality and amount of program offerings coming out of Hollywood, as well as news and public affairs shows from local stations.

In addition to fostering an environment for the creation of more HDTV programming, this decision protects consumers’ right to make digital copies for personal use.

The last time I wrote, I stressed my concern over the issue of must-carry, which today remains the last hurdle in the digital TV transition. Carriage of local broadcasters’ digital signals by cable providers is vital if all consumers are going to reap the full benefits of our efforts. Currently, about 70 percent of Americans receive their television through cable providers.

Yet, cable operators across the country carry barely 200 local digital stations. This is less than 20 percent of the more than 1,060 stations offering free, over-the-air digital programming. My friends in the cable industry have to do a better job, and the FCC and Congress may have to prod them along.

In order to ensure that all consumers receive their local broadcasters’ signals, it is imperative that cable carry both analog and digital signals during the transition. After the transition is complete, cable should carry all of the digital offerings that broadcasters transmit free and over-the-air. Consumers who choose to get their programming from cable should not be denied access to these viewing options.

We’ve reached the tipping point in the DTV transition, and I’m proud of the leadership provided by local broadcasters. We welcome the full cooperation of our industry partners to bring the next generation of television home to the American public.

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