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Tuned to Digital TV

Richard Wiley, who headed U.S. conversion efforts, says hurdles still exist.


In 1987, officials from the Japanese national television network, NHK, demonstrated a new, advanced version of television to stunned policymakers in Washington. The Federal Communications Commission quickly assembled an Advanced Television Advisory Committee to come up with a U.S. response, tapping former FCC Chairman Richard E. Wiley to lead it.

NHK, like many companies in the TV industry, focused on improving analog television, using existing technology as a foundation. But Wiley threw his support behind a completely new approach, using digital cameras and transmission equipment to make a leap in picture quality.

Prodded by Wiley, leading manufacturers joined forces in 1993 to develop a digital TV standard, which the FCC adopted in 1996. Regulators around the world soon followed suit, abandoning advanced analog systems for digital ones.

This work led many observers to label Wiley a key force behind digital TV, particularly the richly detailed version called high-definition television. A lobbyist in Washington and a communications lawyer for Wiley Rein & Fielding, he has remained an active and influential advocate for the technology. This morning, the National Assn. of Broadcasters is scheduled to give Wiley its Distinguished Service Award at its annual convention in Las Vegas.

Question: More than three-quarters of the commercial stations in the U.S. are likely to miss the May 1 deadline for launching their digital channels.

Answer: Yeah, but let's keep in mind, the big affiliates in the big markets are already on the air with digital signals, over 270 stations reaching over 80% of the American population. So we're down the road there.

[The others] are going to miss it for a variety of reasons. Some of it zoning, some of it availability of the equipment, probably some of it financial. But if you don't go digital, where are you going to be? Because there's not going to be an analog broadcasting system someday. The world is going digital. Radio is going digital, cable is going digital, the satellite industry is already digital. Digital is a better transmission technology, and that's the way the world's going. There really isn't any turning back.

Q: If there were a clear business model here, some clear return for going digital, wouldn't every station be doing it?

A: Well, there's a number of transmission problems, a number of transition problems that have occurred, which have slowed this down without a question. First of all, let's keep in mind that this is a highly complex transition we're going through. Color television didn't happen overnight.

I think 2010 is a much more realistic date for a phase-out of analog television and switch-over to digital. The most important problem of all is to have compelling programming that would really motivate consumers to spend the money for an expensive television set, the digital television set. The equipment is much better, highly improved over the first generation, and the price is falling. What we do now is to solve the other part of it, which is the programming. The chicken and egg being you don't buy the sets unless there's programming. You don't produce the programming unless there's sets. Well, the sets are at least available in the marketplace. What would drive their sales, I think, would be to have the programming.

Now, what's holding that up? There are two things. One is copy protection, particularly for motion pictures. In digital, you have the capability of making multiple perfect copies and releasing it on the Internet and all the rest of it. And Hollywood understandably is concerned about that, and the set manufacturers understandably are concerned about having restrictions that would prevent home recording for people.

The other issue is cable compatibility. I had to put up an antenna to get high-definition television because my cable system doesn't offer it. I think it's incumbent upon the cable industry to pass through broadcast and cable high-definition television signals, which they are starting to do, and to create specifications for a plug-and-play receiver. You want to be able to go out and buy equipment and take it home and plug it in as we do now.

Q: Is that why only about 10% of the people who have high-definition monitors also have digital receivers?

A: Yeah, they're buying monitors primarily to use it for DVD players, which is well and good. Nothing wrong with DVDs. But they're not buying integrated sets or the set-top boxes.

Q: Do you think a consumer should buy a digital TV today?

A: It depends how much money they have to spend on it and how interested they are in it. But I would say this: The equipment is very good today. What would drive me to the marketplace would be the fact that there's something out there to watch, and we're not seeing that too much.

Q: Programmers today aren't doing things on the digital channels that just aren't possible with analog. They're providing the same programs with much better picture and better sound.

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