The broadcaster-laden crowd at Maximum Service Television's 15th annual DTV update heard some tough assessments of the transition as they faced a build-out deadline barely two months away for commercial stations.
"The timetable is not being driven by communications policy; it is not being driven by concerns over competition," said MSTV President David Donovan. "It is being driven by budget demands and the desire to clear spectrum for public safety, particularly in the wake of Sept. 11."
So, he said, government should force the cable and consumer electronics industries to do their part in the digital transition or risk losing analog broadcasts before viewers are ready, Donovan said.
He called on the FCC to force the cable industry and consumer electronics manufacturers to fulfill their roles in the transition, with stronger must-carry obligations for cable and a digital receiver mandate for TV manufacturers, for example.
"We are well past the blame game, but the simple fact is, the light at the end of the tunnel may well be a train," he said.
Budget-makers in Washington want the analog spectrum back from broadcasters in order to auction it off, although Congress' dreams for a spectrum windfall have faded with the rest of the economy. And the core channels are stuffed so full of broadcasters – "like sardines," Donovan said – that there may not be enough room for those forced to move down the dial from Channels 50 through 69.
"If we continue down this path, many consumers that rely on over-the-air broadcasters will either be disenfranchised or forced to buy expensive converters," Donovan warned.
FCC officials said they feel the broadcasters' pain and pointed to the easing in November of DTV build-out requirements, a rule change they said enables more broadcasters to meet the May 1 deadline.
When will the transition be complete? "I'd say, when the Bush twins get their doctorates," cracked FCC Office of Plans and Policy Senior Counsel Amy Nathan in a panel discussion.
And what are the consequences for stations that simply miss all their deadlines and extensions? DTV Task Force Chairman Rick Chessen wouldn't get specific about penalties for broadcasters who fail to comply and have no good excuse.
The audience was asked how many were broadcasters and would not meet the May deadline; a dozen people or more raised their hands. Only two raised their hands to indicate they would meet the deadline.
Conferees also lamented the lack of interoperability among digital tuners for cable, satellite, and broadcast; the continued sale of millions of analog TVs annually; the content-inhibiting conflicts over copyright protection and cable's resistance to carrying data services and other programming beyond a broadcaster's "primary" stream.
If only the several parties could sort out disputes over must-carry, copyright protection and system interoperability, many speakers said, the powerful technologies could be used to their fullest.
"Congress said we're going to go from analog to digital; they didn't say, 'if we could find a marketplace solution,'" said James Goodmon, president and CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Co. of Raleigh, N.C., owner of HDTV pioneer WRAL. "This concept that you've got to get agreement [among the parties] – I don't believe that's your job. I think you have to make rules under which we can all operate to make it happen.
"I am a Republican asking you for regulation," he said. "If you want the [analog] spectrum back, if you want to switch to digital, you've got to make the rules and you've got to tell us what to do. We need action, even if we don't like it."
Balancing his words of warning, Donovan also talked up the future of over-the-air broadcasters, praising them for installing "a state-of-the-art system, despite the fact that digital is received by only a small fraction of the people."
For all the complaints about other industries and the government, most broadcasters predicted the nation would actually gain stations in the transition.
"We need not go down this path," Donovan said of his train-wreck scenario. "The FCC must recognize the link between spectrum and the need to accelerate the digital transition. You cannot put pressure on one side of the equation without clearly recognizing the other."