MSTV Sees Clearer Future

Government and network progress cited in transition


In February, Association for Maximum Service Television leaders painted a bleak picture of the DTV transition, presenting a wish list of cable carriage and government action.

At MSTV's Oct. 22 meeting, broadcasters still didn't have most of what they wanted. Yet optimism about the transition's inevitability was clear, even as stations still try to recoup their DTV investments and even without the cable carriage of digital signals, television-cable compatibility and copy protection the industry says are needed to push the new technology over the hump of consumer acceptance.

"Last year we really wanted government intervention in this industry," said MSTV President David Donovan. "And now we have it."

The consumer electronics, cable and broadcasting industries still differ on how to complete the transition and get the analog spectrum back to the government, so it can be auctioned off and reap billions in licensing fees. But speakers and panelists at MSTV's 16th Annual DTV Update agreed on plenty of good developments since talk of a policy train wreck at the 15th annual meeting.


A lot has happened since February, the gathered engineers, regulators, executives and analysts noted:

•In April, FCC Chairman Michael Powell unleashed a set of voluntary actions for the major industries involved the DTV transition.

•The top 10 cable companies have pledged to transmit up to five channels of HDTV in numerous markets.

•The FCC ordered television manufacturers to put DTV tuners in their sets on a phased-in schedule. The commission also began developing rules for copy protection and television-cable compatibility.

•The House Energy and Commerce Committee's draft DTV legislation frightened broadcasters with a 2007 date for the end of analog television. "Nothing focuses people like a test date," said Jessica Wallace, counsel to committee Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.).

•In October, ABC and ESPN announced major HD sports initiatives; "Monday Night Football" and Super Bowl XXXVII will be in HD in 2003.

•Just days before the MSTV confab, Panasonic signed on to CableLabs' PHILA (POD-Host Interface License Agreement), which will allow the electronics giant to make DTV and HDTV televisions that can hook up directly to cable systems nationwide without a set-top box - a compatibility issue seen by many as another piece of the DTV puzzle.


But not everything said at MSTV was what broadcasters wanted to hear. Wallace said that Tauzin doesn't think dual must-carry is constitutional and Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, said his industry would not give in on that issue. He also pooh-poohed the concern over the television-cable compatibility issue.

"You don't need a plug-and-play digital television to watch DTV," he said. "Set-top boxes work well, just as they do for 19 million DBS users."

But the NCTA's own counsel, Dan Brenner, called Panasonic's PHILA news "a major breakthrough."

Sachs told the broadcasters to be patient.The majority of Americans did not own color televisions until 15 years after that technology hit the shelves, he noted.

Powell cited historian Brian Arthur's account of the British railroad boom of 1825-1845, in which companies hysterically built rail lines between small towns, forgetting that they were in the transportation business (as opposed to the rail business), only to have railway stocks dive 85 percent in the few years before 1847.

Yet by 1910, there were 10 times as many miles of track as there were in 1845.

So goes the typical cycle, he said: Entrepreneurs develop new technologies, investors feed the hype with massive expectations fueling rapid build-out and the system overbuilds, gains unwarranted value and bursts. But then technologies enter an era of steady build-out and acceptance after the speculative mania subsides. In Powell's view, the digital era, like the post-boom trains, is gaining steam.

"If Arthur is right, the digital revolution is struggling through the aftermath of the initial speculative crash, but its best days - its golden age - are yet to come," he said.