History Notwithstanding...

In the history of digital television, May 1, 2002 went down as the day federal legislation required that all commercial full power television stations in the U.S. began broadcasting a digital signal. In reality, depending on who you ask, there were anywhere from 233 to 310 commercial stations on-air out of 1,309 (latest FCC figures) operating commercial stations. It was an historic day.

In the history of non-digital television, May 1, 1964 went down as the day legislation required that all television sets manufactured in or imported into the U.S. be able to adequately receive all UHF as well as VHF frequencies. This was the All-Channel Receiver Act. It was an historic day. At the time, there were a number of UHF stations already on the air (the first UHF station, KPTV in Portland, OR, signed-on 12 years earlier), but records at the FCC only go back to 1968, when there were 169 UHF stations.

UHF had a tough time of things in the years prior to the All-Channel Receiver Act. Truth be told, UHF has had a tough time of things since the All-Channel Receiver ActÑit took must-carry and retransmission consent to make UHF viable. DTV hasn't fared much better.

On May 1, 2002, a lot of smart people told a lot of other smart people "I told you so." But a botched transition wasn't either of these people's fault. So whose fault was it? Someone must be to blame.

The FCC finalized the basic DTV transition process on April 3, 1997. At the time, many people thought the timetable of just under 10 years was unrealistic. By Congressional mandate, the transition period ends on December 31, 2006, when, theoretically, analog broadcasting is turned off. But we all know about the 85 percent rule, and analog will be around for a long time.

Congress and the FCC had high hopes for a speedy transition. In 1998, the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology predicted that "roughly 1/2 of the nation's households should be able to receive DTV service by the end of 1999, and everyone else will have access by 2002." Wishful thinking based upon the population distribution in the top 30 markets.

If it took 12 years from the sign-on of the first UHF station to the All-Channel Receiver Act and years more for UHF to become a truly viable business, why in the world did the FCC think it could transition to a non-compatible broadcasting system in under 10 years?

I think it didn't. I think the FCC knew all along the transition timetable would never work. I think the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology knew the truth but did what it was told. I think the folks at the FCC are a lot smarter than we've given them credit for during the past five or so years. These folks know the television business and television technology.

But there's a group in Washington that doesn't know very much about the television business and television technology. Unfortunately, they're the ones that make the rules. They're Congress. The money from analog spectrum sales makes Congress look like heroes, even if it really didn't exist. And Congress built in some loopholes. Why would they do that? Because they knew the transition timetable was unrealistic as well (they may be Congress but they're not that stupid).

Then, just prior to NAB, FCC Chairman Powell releases his "Proposal for Voluntary Industry Actions to Speed the Digital Television Transition" (see www.fcc.gov/dtv). Shouts of "unconstitutional" could be heard coast to coast. But these are suggestionsÑnot law. And Powell accomplished what he set out to do -- get things moving. The NAB supports Powell, and as I write this, the NCTA is poised to as well. Now we can move forward. The truth has set us free. The transition to DTV will take a long time. Some estimates say it will be complete between 2012 and 2017. Others say it will never be complete.

The original timetable will remain in place for a while, subject to semi-annual FCC review. But now that we've broken the crystal ball, perhaps we can move forward without snickering and finger-pointing.