Declaring, “there is no turning back and no retreat” from the DTV transition, FCC Chairman Michael Powell says the pieces of the DTV puzzle are starting to come together. “When that happens, we’ll finally have the content, the distribution and the equipment necessary to shift the transition into high gear,” Powell said.
Speaking last week before the Association for Maximum Service Television, Powell dismissed growing skepticism and criticism of the sluggish transition that aims to convert America’s over-the-air analog television broadcasting to digital.
He did, however, address the “cliff effect,” a looming problem with digital broadcasting that’s rarely mentioned in public by FCC chairmen or DTV proponents. “Digital is simply a different species than analog,” Powell said. “One of the major differences is the digital ‘cliff effect.’ Unlike analog, with digital you either get a perfect picture or you get a blank screen. There is no gradual degradation."
The chairman said the FCC has used its offices to keep pressure on all segments of the industry to find solutions to clearing DTV roadblocks. “We are actively and aggressively engaged in matters involving equipment compatibility, copyright protections, and carriage obligations, just to name a few,” he said. “Moreover, we have used our power to mandate change when an industry could not—or would not—come to a solution. We will not fail to act to keep things moving.”
Comparing the DTV transition today with a year ago, Powell cited movement toward his goals:
HD content on the broadcast networks is up about 50 percent during primetime.
There’s more HD content on cable and satellite, such as Discovery’s 24-hour HD channel. Premier sporting events like the Olympics and the NCAA Final Four are broadcast in HD.
More HD sports are on the way. ESPN HD will launch next April. Monday Night Football will be in HD next year, as will the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and the NHL Stanley Cup. And HDNet continues to add new HD programming to its DirecTV-delivered channel sports and entertainment offerings.
Around this time last year about 200 stations were on the air with digital broadcasts. Now there are over 550. In the top 30 markets, 113 of 119 top-four network affiliates are on the air with digital signals.
The ten largest cable operators (representing more than 85 percent of subscribers nationwide) have agreed to carry HD programming and deploy HD-capable set-top boxes in the near future.
A DTV tuner mandate is in place.
Even where challenges remain, Powell said much progress has been made in 2002.
On “plug and play” cable compatibility, the basic technical standards are now largely complete. The cable and CE industries are working to resolve the remaining business issues, and they’re making significant progress. Panasonic’s announcement that it signed the PHILA agreement is an extremely encouraging sign. (See previous story)
On the “broadcast flag” copy protection, the various industries have worked to narrow their differences over the past year.
"Is the DTV transition better off today than it was a year ago?" Powell asked. Not leaving the response to chance, Powell quickly responded: "The answer is a resounding yes."
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