Chessen Speaks

Rick Chessen is the guy under the radar at the FCC. Appointed chairman of the agency's DTV Task Force, Chessen has remained unsinged by the fire that follows his boss, FCC Chairman Michael Powell, over everything from ownership limits to copy protection. Chessen, a 14-year agency veteran, agreed to answer a barrage of questions from TV Technology.

TV Technology: What is the biggest issue facing the Task Force going into 2004?

Chessen: There are lots of issues on our plate, but let me highlight one-consumer education. Too many consumers are still confused about the DTV transition and what it means for their lives. We'll do what we can at the FCC, but the truth is, we need the industries with a financial stake in the transition to step up and do most of the heavy lifting. The good news is, we're starting to see just that. Two efforts I'd mention in particular are cable's marketing of HDTV and the consumer electronics industry's recent DTV insert in TV Guide.

TV Technology: What has the Task Force accomplished?

Chessen: Hopefully, we've played a constructive role in what's been an incredibly busy period at the FCC. We've worked on initiatives like the 'Powell Plan' and our informal "hoe-downs" that bring parties together to discuss tough issues. We've also worked on formal FCC orders like plug-and-play, broadcaster build-out penalties, the DTV tuner mandate and the broadcast flag. The value of the Task Force, I think, is the amount of time we can devote to thinking about and focusing on the digital transition. Hopefully that adds a depth and breadth to the process that's useful.

TV Technology: According to the FCC database, there are still approximately 80 TV stations that have not been granted a DTV construction permit. What's happening to these stations?

Chessen: There could be several reasons why these stations haven't yet received a construction permit, including delays in coordination with Canada and Mexico, and unresolved interference disputes. While we continue to work to resolve those issues, the FCC has proposed to require the stations to start operating pursuant to special temporary authority. An STA facility would generally operate at lower power than a station's initial digital allocation and would avoid most of the issues holding up construction.

TV Technology: At last count, (before press time) 141 stations were on third build-out extensions, while seven were admonished. What will happen to stations that have not constructed their DTV facilities by the end of the third extension?

Chessen: That depends. If they still can't get on the air despite making every reasonable effort to do so, they may be entitled to another six-month extension-but we scrutinize those requests closely. If they fail to prove their case, they could have their request denied and find themselves on the receiving end of a set of increasingly severe FCC penalties.

At this point, I think the real story isn't the number of stations that aren't on the air but the number that are. There were a total of 1,688 DTV allotments. A couple of years ago, about 200 of those stations were on the air. Today, there are over 1,300. We'll continue to push the remaining stations, but they're a dwindling minority.

TV Technology: What can the FCC reasonably do to stations that don't comply with the digital transition?

Chessen: If a station fails to meet its build-out requirements without a good excuse, the FCC imposes a series of increasing penalties. First, we'll issue a formal reprimand and impose reporting requirements on the station. If the station isn't on the air six months later, we'll issue a fine and impose stricter reporting requirements. If the station still isn't on the air six months after that, we'll rescind its DTV authorization and it will then only have its analog allotment.

One key point is that a station that loses its DTV authorization won't be permitted to convert to digital on its analog channel at the end of the transition. It will have to return its analog spectrum and then re-apply for the channel and subject itself to competing applications. But I don't think it'll come to that. So far, all of the stations denied an extension have gotten on the air within six months and never made it to step two.

TV Technology: What is the policy on DTV stations operating at output powers substantially less than their licensed effective radiated power?

Chessen: The FCC deferred the deadlines for smaller-market stations to operate at full power, so long as they put an adequate signal over their community of license. The idea was to permit more stations to get on the air at lower cost, while still covering their most populated areas, and then ramping up in power as the transition proceeds. We are now working on a rulemaking to set new deadlines for all stations to go to full-power operation. The dates proposed by the FCC are July 1, 2005 for stations affiliated with the top-four networks in the top-100 markets and July 1, 2006 for all other stations, including non-commercial stations.

TV Technology: If the purpose of advancing the digital transition is the recovery of broadcast spectrum, in what way does "plug-and-play" promote terrestrial (over-the-air) DTV, hence the recovery of spectrum?

Chessen: Generally, a rising digital tide lifts all boats. Anything that gives consumers a reason to go out and invest in digital equipment is good for the transition-not necessarily the "broadcast" transition or the "cable" transition but the broader transition to "digital television." Many cable subscribers want plug-and-play functionality and wouldn't consider it progress to be told they have to get a set-top box in the digital world. So if we're going to inspire that consumer to go out and buy a DTV set to watch HDTV programming provided by their cable operator-including broadcast HDTV programming on cable-plug-and-play becomes an important feature.

On a more practical level, plug-and-play sets will advance the broadcast transition because one of the requirements of a cable-ready set is that it contain an over-the-air DTV tuner. So consumers who buy plug-and-play sets will be able to watch programming over the air as well as over cable, just as they do in today's analog world.

TV Technology: How many U.S. TV households are equipped with terrestrial DTV receivers?

Chessen: Overall, the number of DTV "sets"-receivers and monitors-is still relatively small compared to the total number of TV households. But those numbers are rising fast-something like 2.5 million sets were sold during 2002 and probably over 4 million in 2003. And next year, with the DTV tuner mandate kicking in and plug-and-play sets coming onto the market, the percentage of DTV sets that include over-the-air reception capability should increase as well.

TV Technology: Does the Task Force, as well as the FCC, consider available DTV reception technology adequate to make tuners work effectively?

Chessen: When it comes to consumer electronics equipment, our preference is to rely on market forces to meet consumer needs in terms of price, quality, performance and features. So far, the FCC has found that each generation of DTV receivers are improving and performing adequately. But it's something we're watching closely, and we're prepared to step in if necessary. I would note that the ATSC formed an inter-industry committee to work on a set of "best practices" for DTV receivers. It'll be interesting to see what they come up with.

TV Technology: Under the broadcast flag ruling, which of the following would be more difficult to redistribute on the Internet: A State of the Union Address or a blockbuster movie on HBO?

Chessen: The HBO movie would not be affected by the broadcast flag ruling at all, since it's not broadcast content. Assuming the State of the Union was being watched on broadcast TV, the first question would be whether the broadcaster decides to turn on the flag to signal that the content should be protected from mass redistribution over the Internet. Use of the flag is completely voluntary.

The next question would be what type of output is the content being transmitted over once it's received-analog or digital, and the specific characteristics of the output involved.

Because we don't yet know what type of digital technologies will be approved for use with the broadcast flag, it's impossible to say whether broadcast or cable programs will be more difficult to redistribute. If they use the same connector- and content-protection technologies, the possibility of mass Internet redistribution should be comparable.

One thing it is possible to say is that a viewer will be able to freely copy the State of the Union speech under a broadcast flag system, while under the encoding rules that apply to cable and satellite a viewer could potentially be limited to making one copy of the HBO movie.

TV Technology: What is the view of the Task Force on PSIP, and might the FCC mandate that broadcasters transmit it?

Chessen: PSIP carries important data, like channel numbering, closed captioning and event information that will enable viewers to personalize their viewing and to take advantage of the potential flexibility and features offered by DTV. The FCC is considering whether to make PSIP mandatory and, if so, which parts of PSIP to incorporate into our rules. I can't say what the Commission will do, but in the comments we received, I don't believe any outside parties opposed a PSIP mandate.

TV Technology: What have you learned from the digital transition in Berlin?

Chessen: We're still studying it. It's certainly intriguing as the first real-world example of a complete analog switch-off. But there may be some key differences.

Berlin is a small, urban environment. In the end, I think they had to subsidize only something like 4,000 or 5,000 converter boxes. And they don't do HD programming, so the converter boxes were cheaper than they would be in the U.S.

I'm also not sure how they handled the issue of cable carriage-they assumed that cable subscribers would be taken care of. Does that mean that cable subscribers have access to the digital broadcast signals over their cable? Are the broadcast signals carried only in digital, downconverted to analog or both?

TV Technology: Will there be an analog shutdown in the U.S. in 2006, and if so, when will the FCC start notifying people that their legacy sets will no longer receive over-the-air signals?

Chessen: Under the current statutory standard, there almost certainly won't be an analog shut-down in 2006-but that doesn't mean the transition is not on track. The 2006 date was always a target date, not a hard deadline, and if you look at historical examples of similar transitions, 2006 was very, very aggressive. I'm optimistic that this transition is about to really take off over the next year or so. When it does, we can start planning for the end game with a bit more certainty.