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FCC Chairman Sets New Deadlines for Digital Technology

Media: To increase usage, major TV networks are asked to provide at least 50% of their prime-time shows in the format.

April 05, 2002|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the transition to digital TV stuck in low gear, a top federal regulator Thursday tried to prod cable and satellite operators, set manufacturers, broadcasters and networks to pick up the pace.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell laid out a new set of voluntary deadlines, calling for more digital programming this fall and more support from cable and satellite services by Jan. 1. He also urged set manufacturers to build digital tuners in at least half their big-screen sets by 2004.

The deadlines were included in letters Powell sent to the chairmen and other leading members of the House and Senate Commerce committees. Although they aren't binding, they provide a measuring stick for Congress to judge the various players' commitment to digital TV.

The letters don't address the biggest barrier for consumers: the high price of digital TV sets. To watch a local broadcaster's digital channel, consumers typically must spend at least $2,000, which is eight times the average price of a conventional color TV.

But they do answer one of the biggest complaints by local TV stations, which Powell is scheduled to face next week at the annual National Assn. of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas.

When the FCC mandated the switch to digital in 1997, its regulations applied only to local broadcasters, not to any of the other groups that could make or break the transition.

The FCC gave commercial stations until May 1 to have a digital signal on the air. But more than three-fourths of those stations probably will miss that deadline, and well under 1% of all homes have the special receivers needed to tune in local digital signals.

Many policymakers and industry groups have blasted the sluggish shift to digital, with broadcasters, cable operators, set manufacturers and programmers accusing the others of undermining the new format.

Broadcasters have lobbied hard for federal action, imploring the FCC to require cable and satellite operators to carry the local digital stations and to force TV manufacturers to include digital tuners in their sets.

Powell, whom President Bush appointed chairman of the commission last year, has favored imposing fewer regulations. His letters, however, pressure the various industry segments to increase their support for digital TV or risk being slapped by Washington with a new set of requirements.

In particular, Powell called on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, HBO and Showtime to provide at least half of their prime-time programs in high-definition TV or other enhanced digital TV format, starting in the 2002-2003 season. All but Fox and NBC already may do that.

Starting next year, Powell said, cable and satellite operators should carry as many as five channels that meet the 50% level. And set manufacturers should include digital tuners in all their sets by the end of 2006, with earlier deadlines set for large and mid-size screens.

Powell's effort drew guarded praise from broadcasters, cable and satellite operators and set manufacturers.

"It's good for the chairman to return the spotlight to this issue," said Jeffrey A. Joseph, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Assn. But he added, "We have some great concerns about the tuner [deadlines].... These voluntary things have a funny way of finding their way into legislative or regulatory mandates."

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