Grand Compromise Could Resolve DTV Transition

When we were all much younger, the Grand Alliance was created to hammer out technical standards. Now, a Grand Compromise is needed to bring finality to what has become an endless journey through political quicksand.
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Back in the early days of the DTV transition, when we were all much younger, the Grand Alliance was created to hammer out technical standards. Now, a Grand Compromise is needed to bring finality to what has become an endless journey through political quicksand.

The Grand Alliance, created in 1993, was comprised of companies with a stake in the various technologies competing to become the DTV standard. It was essentially all about money--preserving and protecting the investments of each of the DTV pioneers. At the end of the day, consensus was achieved. We ended up with not one, but 18 format variations for SD and HDTV--all meshed into what's now called the ATSC Digital Television Standard. It was a messy process whose success is still uncertain. But at least it's over.

The remaining stumbling blocks to ending this transition are political. As with all such matters, a lot of stubborn people are digging in their heels and claiming the higher ground. To break the standoff and avoid years of uncertainly in the courts, a Grand Compromise is sorely needed.

Three key issues and several peripheral matters need to be decided simultaneously to end the gridlock. These key issues are setting a hard deadline for the cutoff of analog service; multichannel must-carry for TV stations; and public service requirements for digital broadcasters. On the periphery are broadcast censorship, media ownership, and digital copyright policies. Let's start with the three key issues. Here's a scenario that might be tolerable for all sides:

1. Set an unconditional hard date for the end of analog service. Public notices should be given that all analog TV devices are going to require a converter to receive over-the-air signals after a certain date. (The government should not get into the business of buying converters. If the broadcasters are so worried by the tiny percentage of possibly disenfranchised viewers, let them purchase and give away the converter boxes.)

2. Grant broadcasters multicast must-carry, as long as a single station uses no more than 6 MHz of bandwidth for all channels combined, and the broadcaster's content does not duplicate programming already on the cable system. This means each station can use its 6 MHz for an HD channel, several SD channels or some other variation.

To avoid having several stations carrying a replication of the same shopping or weather channels, each broadcaster would have to produce or acquire unique programming to be guaranteed carriage. This would prevent stations from selling their subsidiary channels to third parties to create ad hoc "networks" of duplicated content. If a cable operator finds that station content is being duplicated on its system, the operator would retain the right to not carry that channel.

3. Now that the Michael Powell reign at the FCC is behind us, it's time to address the public service obligations of digital broadcasters. These obligations should be essential to any DTV compromise. The public is giving broadcasters free spectrum and expects something very valuable in return. This does not include profit-making, ratings-driven news, sports and weather programming.

It means thoughtful local programming that actually helps people. The new obligations should also specify some no-nos, such as the loathsome trend of using government-produced propaganda as news without advising viewers, and the failure to adequately cover local elections. It should also become much easier to track what a station claims is public service programming and to challenge the licenses of stations that fail to provide it.

If the hard-heads of broadcasting, cable, satellite and government could work out a compromise on these three issues, the DTV transition--at least the transition to digital transmission technology--could come to a swift end.

Note, I did not say a successful end, because it still is very unclear where terrestrial television stations fit in the future of multichannel digital media. Their ultimate survival will be their own challenge to meet and no government cushion can guarantee the end result.

Even if these three key DTV issues are resolved through a compromise, the peripheral concerns can still have an enormous impact on whether the transition succeeds. The broadcasters are going to have to go on the offensive and fight some life-threatening challenges.

END THE CAMPAIGN

First, this ridiculous, heavy-handed "indecency" campaign must come to an end. It is sucking the life out of terrestrial broadcasting. The "Leave to Beaver" era is over, but the proponents of the nation's culture war don't want to see it.

If a ceasefire is not possible, the broadcasters should put this blatant attempt at censorship on a fast track to the courts. Without content worth watching on terrestrial TV, the DTV transition will all have been a waste. The remaining viewers will simply migrate to more compelling fare on pay television.

Also, the issues surrounding copyright infringement must be resolved soon. Viewers who have spent big bucks on new HDTV sets are not going to take kindly to any onerous limitations on home recording. Anything less than unobstructed use of legally obtained content will lead to revolt.

This means lowering the broadcast flag. It won't fly. Even if it means Hollywood limits its top films to pay television (something that's going to happen anyway), broadcasters should vigorously side with viewer rights. It's good business and it will pay off at the end of the day.

Finally, there's media ownership. It's not very hard to figure out that the future of terrestrial broadcasting resides in localism. The big-bucks content--including sports--is fast migrating to pay services. Local broadcasters will not be needed for national distribution in the digital era. They need a new game, which just happens to be where they started--localism.

Centralized, national media ownership has been a disaster for the concept of localism in both radio and television broadcasting. That needs to change. Maybe stringent public service requirements for stations can do what media ownership rules have not.

Regardless, viewers have voted. They've rejected sanitized, generic, plain vanilla corporate programming. They've always responded to original, creative local programming.

The current DTV transition issues facing broadcasters are actually far more difficult than earlier challenges on technical standards. Today's issues are unlikely to be resolved on an individual basis, since any governmental decision on a single policy will likely result in years of litigation.

What's needed is a voluntary Grand Compromise. It may not save terrestrial broadcasting, but it's the best hope yet of digging out of the current quagmire and bringing an end to the DTV transition.