Ken Ferree: The 'Johnny Appleseed' of DTV?

FCC Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree raised his eyebrows in surprise when the chairman of the IEEE Broadcast Symposium introduced Ferree as "the highlight" of the conference. Speaking at a luncheon group of around 200 broadcast engineers at the Washington, DC conference, Ferree boldly skirted anything of any technical consequence for which he could have been taken to task. Instead, he focused on the great progress made on the digital television transition during FCC Chairman Michael Powell's tenure at the reins of the agency.

Ferree tossed out some figures to back up his assertion that the DTV transition was going gangbusters. For example, Ferree said that three years ago, there were only 170 stations with digital signals on the air, and that there were only about 625,000 DTV sets in America.

"Today, there are over 1,200 stations on the air with DTV operations," he said, "more than 500 of which are on the air with licensed facilities, the others are operating with special or experimental DTV authority." Ferree also cited CEA set sales numbers, saying that "there are approximately 4.3 million sets in American homes," although the CEA tracks manufacturer-to-retailer sales.

After a good 10 minutes of horn-blowing, the Media Bureau chief also conceded that there was still a good deal of work to be done to complete the digital transition, not the least of which is educating the public.

"The problem is that the information out there is spotty, confusing, and sometimes contradictory," he said. "Unfortunately, consumer education is the one part of the transition that the FCC has the least control over and input into. We are not a Madison Avenue advertising firm, we don't do Public Service Announcements, and we don't have large budgets to promote products. I can go on, of course, like the Johnny Appleseed of digital television, planting interest and information about digital television wherever I go, but it's a big country out there and my single-handed efforts are not going to substantially improve the level of consumer knowledge in this area."

Public awareness--something the CEA also found wanting in its most recent survey--is the bailiwick of the industries that have a stake in digital television, Ferree said.

As far as the FCC is concerned, it has work of its own to complete, including the broadcast flag, two-way plug and play, and what to do with low-power TV.

"We will end the fall dealing, I hope, with digital carriage and by completing our DTV Periodic Review, both of which have to do with establishing baseline rules for DTV operations on broadcast and cable platforms," Ferree said.

Regarding the LPTV Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued by the FCC in August, Ferree said, "These stations deliver television services to some of the smallest communities in the United States, serve areas in rural parts of the country remote from metropolitan areas, and sometimes provide the only source of local television programming in their communities. The transition of these stations is, therefore, an essential element to final DTV transition."