Good News! Too Bad.

Shortly before this year's NAB convention in April, Michael Powell, head of the FCC, introduced a plan to speed the digital television transition. Among other things, it involved getting satellite and cable systems to carry advanced TV programming. Early in May, the top 10 cable companies, representing some 85 percent of U.S. subscribers, agreed to Powell's plan. That's good news.

Earlier this year, nine major consumer electronics manufacturers agreed on specifications for an HDTV-capable, home-video DVD-like recording system that could also be used as an HDTV PVR. JVC announced an HDTV home video system for pre-recorded movies, and the release date of its first major Hollywood title was May 2002. That's more good news.

Speaking at a DTV Summit in Washington in April, Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) Senior Analyst Sean Wargo said that there were some 2.6 million DTV products already in homes, making DTV the fastest-adopted consumer-electronics product ever. That's still more good news.

Discovery Networks has announced plans for an HDTV channel. There could be three more HDNet channels before the end of the year, at which time the programming of the current one could be free to broadcasters. "An important agreement" on DTV copy protection was announced at a House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee hearing on April 25. This year's NAB Broadcast Engineering Conference included a session called "DTV ReceptionÑIt Works!" That's all good news. Isn't it?

It probably is good news for HDTV enthusiasts. It's too bad for broadcasters.

Powell's plan calls for cable and satellite to carry "up to five broadcast or other digital programming services that are providing value-added digital programming during at least 50 percent of their prime-time schedule." Never mind that "up to five" includes the number zero. Never mind that Powell's definition of "value-added" includes the sort of simple interactivity that many cable operators have already provided for years on more than five channels. Assume it's five, and assume it's HDTV.

If that good news comes to pass, cable operators will be able to choose five channels from the HDTV programming services of, at the very least, Discovery, HBO, HDNet channels one through four, and Showtime. They can proudly proclaim that they're meeting all of the requirements of Powell's plan, and they won't have to carry the signals of a single DTV broadcaster to do so.

Do consumers really need cable or satellite retransmission to receive DTV? NAB's "DTV Reception Ñ It Works!" session was followed by one that described steps being taken just in case it really doesn't. NxtWave's Matt Miller offered a number of choices. If advanced-equalizer chips don't work, there's an interface for an electronically-steerable antenna; if that doesn't work, there's a plan for more robust transmission (at a lower data rate); and, if even that doesn't work, "There's always cable" (NxtWave has a new line of cable-reception chips).

Those 2.6 million "DTV products" in homes don't help. CEA twice correctly defined DTV as having to do with terrestrial digital television broadcasts, but the vast majority of their "DTV products" are simply displays with the capability to scan at rates faster than NTSC's. From the time the FCC issued its DTV rules through December 31 of last year, according to CEA, only 267,247 devices capable of receiving terrestrial DTV broadcasts in the U.S. were sold to dealers. Every one of those in a store, a warehouse, or a TV station is one that's not in a home.

What do consumers watch on those "DTV products"? Some watch HBO or Showtime HDTV via cable or satellite. Some watch DVDs. The additional non-broadcast HDTV offerings will no doubt be appreciated. In two polls of the readership of HDTV Magazine this spring, all of the week's top-10 shows were on HDNet; none were on broadcast stations.

As for any interim agreement on copy protection, it may be good news in the long run, but consumers could prefer to wait to buy DTV receivers until all issues are worked out. Copy protection could require connections that those 2.6 million DTV products lack.

Good news? Does the DTV transition include broadcasters?