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Key Decision Expected Soon on Digital TV

Technology: FCC chief hopes for an industry consensus on format by the end of the year.


The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said Friday he expects an industry-wide consensus on the format for emerging digital television technology by the end of this year.

FCC Chairman Reed Hundt was invited for a presentation at the DreamWorks SKG movie studio by Steven Spielberg, who is leading a drive for sophisticated digital TV standards favored by filmmakers. Those standards have been opposed by TV manufacturers and broadcasters, who back a proposed series of technical specifications more closely related to current analog broadcasting.

At a news conference following the presentation, where he met with Spielberg and other film executives, Hundt said his agency is aiming for "an open discussion" of the format issue "for a period of months, not years."

When asked when the new standards might finally be devised, he responded, "I'd like to see it by the end of the year."

Various battles over digital TV standards have raged since the technology was introduced more than a decade ago. In a separate but related issue, an effort by broadcasters to secure free digital TV licenses has become a controversial issue in Washington.

Hundt emphasized that the emerging technology gives the government and the TV industry a chance to wipe the slate clean and re-examine issues ranging from content to image delivery. Echoing the promises of industry experts, he said digital TV will offer viewers improved picture quality, increased programming options and easy links to computer networks.

Among other things, digital television could allow for a vastly greater number of channels on the broadcast spectrum.

"Digital TV is a big deal; it gives us a chance to take a look at all aspects of the medium," Hundt told reporters.

Saying that government had long ago "poured concrete over the standard" for analog TV, he added, "Fifty years is a long time to go without innovation in a technology."

A coalition of creative personnel, including the Directors Guild of America, the American Society of Cinematographers and the Artists Rights Foundation, have joined Spielberg and computer companies such as Microsoft to oppose a tentative standard backed by an FCC advisory committee. In essence, the filmmakers favor an "open platform" that could mimic the wide-screen display of movie theaters and a "progressive scan" technology that they say would allow for crisper images.

While not expressly adopting the filmmakers' view, Hundt left little doubt about where his own sympathies lie.

"As a matter of principle, I find it pretty amazing that the government would pick as a standard something that was not agreeable to the two major industries in question, content and software," he said. The battle is far from over. Asked how TV manufacturers and broadcasters had lobbied the FCC in the debate, Hundt deadpanned, "Persistently."

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