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09.17.2003 12:00AM
A Look Back While Looking Forward
Broadcasters face a host of regulatory hurdles during the DTV transition

RALEIGH, N.C.

Many of us in broadcasting are fortunate to have lived and worked in the golden years of television. Advancements in the medium over the last 20-25 years have been breathtaking. But significant shifts outside of technology have also had an enormous impact on our craft and in some cases are tarnishing the gold.

Regulatory decisions are having a tremendous impact on the broadcast arena. At the same time, a general shift in the business environment is creating more challenges for all of us and hundreds of options for video are chipping away at our viewing audiences.

Looking back, it is easy to target the transition to digital as the most significant development by far. While the transition may be burdensome to some and expensive for all of us, digital is a "must" for our broadcast future. We live in a digital world and television cannot afford to be left behind. Cable and satellite are clearly moving in that direction and to remain competitive we have to alter our delivery system. The technology offers us a chance to improve our product significantly. Better yet, it gives us the flexibility and versatility to compete at all levels and to build toward a future yet unimagined.

A FUTURE YET IMAGINED

When our company, Capitol Broadcasting, became the first commercial operation to broadcast a digital signal on WRAL-HD on July 23, 1996, we could not imagine, then, the continuing developments and improvements in the technology that would occur over the next seven years. Industry engineers, designers, and researchers began improving the nascent technology daily. Shortly after signing on, we were able to broadcast multiple channels-permitting us to broadcast a high definition channel at all times while providing an additional all-news local channel in standard definition. For the last three years we have been able to offer our basketball fans their choice of any one of four games in the Final Four Basketball Tournament. Digital also provides a platform for data distribution. PCs with video cards pick up our HD signal and receive our normal Web page services, including video clips of news, sports, and weather. We feel the digital transition is more significant than the transition to color that we witnessed in the '50s and early '60s.

And while color was a major technical accomplishment, the downsizing of our broadcast equipment in later years provided giant leaps for local production, especially newsgathering. Lighter cameras and recorders, and eventually, advancements in wireless and microwave transmissions gave us the mobility needed in a fast paced world. ENG changed the face of local news forever.

COMPETITION INCREASES

As technology was making us better and faster, competition was also exploding. Cable was beginning to bloom and shortly thereafter, home satellite delivery appeared over the horizon. The overall communications revolution, and the competitive impact it bears for television, continues with the growth of the Internet and its ability to compete in the video world.

Other changes were taking place in the business environment at about the same time. Former family-owned stations caught the eyes of big business and the major conglomerates began to move into the broadcast universe. Programming became more expensive in a much larger buyers marketplace. Large group owners began squeezing out the single stations with programming purchases for their multiple stations. Relations between the major networks and their affiliated stations became more strained.

Beyond the technology and other changes, however, it is our feeling that regulatory issues have had more impact on television broadcasting than anything else. With passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress granted us the temporary use of additional spectrum in order for us to convert to digital. Unfortunately, seven years later we are still struggling with the conversion because the FCC did not give us the complete package and rulemaking to complete the transition. Must carry, tuner standards, copyright, and other issues were left unresolved. Many of our transitional needs still are ignored while the commission focuses instead on media deregulation, (another potential threat to most local stations.)

All broadcasters would agree that localism and the public interest are the bedrocks of broadcasting. This attention to the local community is what separates local operators from networks and national cable and satellite systems. As long as broadcasters are permitted to freely use the public's airwaves, then it is reasonable to expect us to give the public something in return. Broadcasting is a unique medium, distinct from other media. Our licenses are granted to serve "the public interest, convenience, and necessity." This simple philosophy, however, began to shift in the 1980s. Under Federal Communications Chairman Mark Fowler, the agency began to turn away from these obligations and toward free "market forces" and deregulation. Many of the old rules...ascertaining the community's needs and interests and then programming to those needs...were pushed aside. Ownership rules were relaxed and broadcasting, in some eyes, became nothing more than another commodity to be sold, traded, merged and bartered for financial gain. That thinking continues today. It should be obvious that because spectrum scarcity creates a significant barrier to entry, the free market theory simply does not apply to the broadcast industry. Unfortunately today five companies-four of whom are broadcast networks-control most of the voices in the marketplace. Those same companies also own the top-rated cable channels, as well as the most viewed Web sites.

As TV Technology celebrates this anniversary year, let us hope the FCC moves to push digital technology forward rather than concentrating on policies to help the large media companies become even bigger. Years from now when we look back on our history...let's hope that technical advances, and not deregulation, are what we remember and that broadcasters once again are focusing on localism and serving the public interest.


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