Just days before facing broadcasters at NAB braying for government action on the digital television transition, FCC Chairman Michael Powell called on major television players to compromise and voluntarily contribute to the medium's future - or possibly face some action beyond gentle persuasion.
"We want to keep the pressure on," Powell said at NAB.
His suggestion is that by Jan. 1, 2003, each network affiliate in the top 100 markets pass along whatever digital offerings its network offers - HDTV, interactive or other "value-added programming" - during at least half of primetime (or whenever it begins digital broadcast). He's asking ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, HBO and Showtime to provide that programming by the 2002-2003 season. The plan calls for satellite providers and most cable operators to offer "up to" five advanced channels by 2003, and for television manufacturers to build in digital tuners in a staggered rollout.
Broadcasters, cable and satellite operators and the consumer electronics manufacturers each commended Powell generally for the plan, with each suggesting that it was doing plenty for the digital revolution.
NAB called the proposal "a major step forward in breaking the DTV logjam," while noting that the group still had concerns over some elements of the plan. The Consumer Electronics Association voiced support but said the mandate for digital tuners was unnecessary. EchoStar praised the plan while plugging its proposed merger with DirecTV parent Hughes Electronics, claiming in a statement that the combined companies could provide no less than 12 HD channels.
Dallas-based Belo Corp., owner of 18 television stations, said the plan would be no problem for it. "Your request that DTV affiliates of the top four networks in markets one to 100 be prepared to pass through network high-definition programming by Jan. 1, 2003, is reasonable and certainly one that Belo is committed to meeting," the company said.
Cable operators may have to make the biggest concessions and have received the plan with less enthusiasm.
FCC Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree agreed with a suggestion at a pre-NAB discussion that the cable industry ought to view the plan as a threat of regulation if the industry does not do its part. Richard Parsons, CEO-designate of AOL Time Warner, told an NAB crowd that the time had come for cable and broadcasters to work together. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association was non-committal, noting that its members were already actively working toward "several" of Powell's "thought provoking proposals."
The call for something special on the networks during half of primetime is a stronger hint than current policy, which lets broadcasters decide about how to divide up their signals - into HDTV, multicasting or whatever. But broadcasters could fulfill Powell's wish with content other than HDTV.
"Value-added DTV programming could be high-definition, innovative multicasting, interactive, etc. - so long as it gives consumers something significantly different than what they currently receive in analog," the plan says.
One questioner at a panel of regulators at NAB charged that Powell's plan, after months of pressure to act, in its call for corporate volunteerism amounts to a commitment not to act. Commissioner Kevin Martin said that some of the onus remained on the FCC.
"[The Powell plan] is an important step, but I think the commission needs to do its part to work through its proceedings," he said of the Powell plan. "One way or another the commission needs to resolve the questions it has about its own authority."