The FCC has approved equipment standards that will allow digital television sets to connect directly to digital cable service wall outlets without the need for a set-top box (“plug-and-play” TV). The standards are based on an agreement reached by cable companies and equipment manufacturers. Consumers still will need to obtain a security card (“POD” or “cable card”) from their local cable operator to insert into the plug-and-play TV sets.
The sets will eliminate the need for consumers to obtain a set-top box or use a separate remote control to receive digital cable service. They also will be able to take their plug-and-play sets to other parts of the country and have them work with different cable systems. In addition, they will be able to fully utilize functions of their television sets that are often disabled when sets are connected to set-top boxes. Plug-and-play digital sets should be in stores in the second half of 2004.
The FCC also adopted requirements to ensure that all sets labeled “Digital Cable Ready” meet plug-and-play standards. It required set manufacturers to provide owner's guides explaining the functions of the sets and POD security cards, and released a further notice of proposed rulemaking to determine whether to require a pre-sale explanation of plug-and-play features.
The downside is that first-generation plug-and-play sets will be able to receive only “one-way” programming. If consumers want to subscribe to advanced digital “two-way” services such as pay-per-view, video-on-demand, interactive services or cable operator-enhanced program guides, they still will need a set-top box for the time being. Cable and equipment manufacturers are continuing to negotiate standards that will allow plug-and-play sets to provide “two-way” services.
The FCC's action is intended to speed the transition to high-definition television. As a result of the new standards, HDTV sets (more advanced than standard digital sets) that connect to cable without set-top boxes also are expected to be in retail stores by the end of next year. In addition, the new standards are expected to increase consumer demand for HD sets and encourage program producers to provide more programming in HDTV.
To further speed the transition, starting April 1, 2004, the FCC is requiring cable operators to supply HDTV set-top boxes with HDTV connectors when requested. By July 1, 2005, all HDTV set-top boxes must contain digital or HDTV interfaces, and television sets labeled “Digital Cable Ready” must include tuners for reception of over-the-air digital TV. The FCC will prohibit downresolution of HDTV programming to standard-definition by cable and other multichannel programming systems. It released a further notice of proposed rulemaking regarding downresolution of non-broadcast programming.
The FCC adopted encoding rules that permit cable and other multichannel programming systems (except Internet, cable modem or DSL services) to prohibit consumers from copying digital pay-per-view and video-on-demand programming. The cable and other systems also may limit copying of digital cable channels to one copy. No restrictions are permitted on the copying of broadcast television.
The FCC additionally adopted an interim policy and released a further notice of proposed rulemaking regarding scrambling technologies. The FCC stated that it will address digital broadcast copy protection (the “broadcast flag”) in another order in the near future.
Harry C. Martin is an attorney with Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth PLC, Arlington, VA.
Dec. 1, 2003, is the deadline for filing biennial ownership reports for TV stations in Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont.
Dec. 1 also is the deadline for stations in those states to place their annual EEO reports in their public files and post them on their Web sites.
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