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The broadcasters' crystal ball

Well, the world didn't crash as we entered the real new millennium. So it's time to make a few resolutions and predict where things will be one year from now.

First a resolution. I promise not to criticize the FCC chairman after July 1st.

Now a prediction. I predict that our beloved FCC chairman won't be here then. He'll receive his walking papers when his term ends in June. Don't shed any tears for him because he'll reappear at a Washington, D.C. law firm, probably with a seven-figure salary. Not surprisingly, that firm will just happen to be highly involved in telecommunications and he'll go from regulating to promoting. I guess leopards can change their spots.

Now for my DTV prediction. I predict that Sinclair's bid to get the FCC to adopt an alternative modulation standard will fail. Hey, it's not because I don't believe in what they're trying to do. I'm a believer in "follow the money" reality. There are billions in future profits involved here. Voting on our DTV standard is being measured with dollars, not chads. The Sinclair drumbeat is about to be silenced without a recount.

Here are some of my other predictions: - Microsoft will partially succeed in getting the government's case dismissed. They won't win everything, but they will not have to break into two separate companies. Broadcasters can expect to see Windows-derived technology in our viewers' TV sets.

- Interactive TV, datacasting and other non-traditional services will soon become critical to a station's future. Expect to see many stations providing enhanced TV services long before they produce local HD.

- The drive for HDTV will quicken. The midsummer release of large-screen HD projection systems that cost less than $2000 will let John Q. Public see the advantages of real HD. This, combined with building congressional pressure, will force broadcasters to get on the air and pass through HD.

- Now for the big one: The 2006 cutoff date for conversion to DTV will not stick. However, it won't be 2025 as predicted by Strategy Analytics either.

Now, before you gasp with relief, there will be a price to pay for the delay. Congress will extract both financial and political penalties for extending the deadline. Those penalties will include a spectrum fee to be phased in against those stations missing the 2006 deadline. Stay analog and you'll have to rent your frequency.

Despite the NAB's well-intentioned attempt to get credit for public service, look for Congress to require your station to carry more children's programming and free political ads. Some will try to get a form of family hour implemented. That probably won't happen. Too many viewers (and advertisers) are hooked on trash TV shows like Ally McBeal and Cops.

- Finally, the economic slowdown could affect broadcasters. This would put further pressure on stations trying to fund the DTV conversion. If the economy continues to slow, expect ad revenue to drop in the last half of the year. That would put everyone between the proverbial rock and the hard place.

That's what my crystal ball says. Let's compare notes. What's your guess?

Now, my final resolution. I'll answer those Freezeframe questions more promptly. So, those of you waiting for T-shirts, they're in the mail.