Be Kind to the FCC: Donate Calendars

You might not have noticed that, in a typical calendar, April comes before May. What am I talking about? Of course you've noticed that! Anyone not in advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease or something worse knows that. No, there's only one place where they ain't got a clue as to the relationship between April and May, and that's at Our Beloved Commish, aka the FCC.

"But, Mario, what are you talking about?"

What am I talking about? I'm talking about the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued on Jan. 27 of this year, better known as the periodic review of the DTV transition.


Way back in 1997 -- a decade, century and millennium ago -- when Our Beloved Commish issued the rules that began the aforementioned transition, it said it would review it every couple of years. Methinks I can do the arithmetic for this one on my hands. 1997 plus 2 plus 2 plus 2 is 2003. Well, now, that works!

So this is the third biennial review, eh? Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzt! Wrong! It's the second review. Maybe someone at Our Beloved Commish ordered some 18-month calendars and didn't notice that the years change somewhere in the middle.

So the second review is happening when the third should. That's not so bad. But wait until you get into some of the issues they want to review.

One of them is the simulcasting requirement. Back in 1997, Our Beloved Commish said that dTTb (digital terrestrial television broadcasting) stations wouldn't have to initially simulcast their NTSC programming.

Here's the deal: A shopper goes to Gizmos 'r' Good to buy a teevee. Maybe it's after work -- 6:00 p.m. on a weekday. What's on? Local news or probably garbage counter-programming, neither of which is going to do a lot to entice someone to lay out big bucks for a DTV. But with no simulcasting requirement, a station can play some adventure movie or bikini contest on its dTTb channel and the news on its analog NTSC channel, and all is well.

Then, after everyone's gone out and bought a giant-screen dTTb set, there's a different problem. It's okay to watch the news on the NTSC channel and the bikinis on the dTTb channel, but Our Beloved Commish said it was going to shut NTSC down in 2006, so how will viewers get the news?

Easy. That's where phased-in simulcasting does the trick. By April 1, 2003, everyone on the air with dTTb has got to simulcast 50 percent of the programming on the NTSC stations. By April 1, 2004, it's 75 percent. And by April 1, 2005, the year before the death of NTSC, it's 100 percent. Viewers find they can get whatever they want on their dTTb stations, so they don't mind the shutdown of NTSC.

At least that was Plan A. But April 1, 2003, you've probably noticed, is next month. And, lo and behold (although I still don't know how to lo), the dTTb transition maybe hasn't gone quite as fast as had been hoped.

According to the research part of the Consumer Electronics Association (which is not one of the preachy, hype-y parts), from the time Our Beloved Commish issued its rules through the end of 2002, a whopping 542,659 U.S. dTTb receivers (both set-top boxes and stuff integrated into a display) left factories. They left those factories for TV stations, production companies, labs, warehouses and retailers.

But let's play pretend, shall we? Let's pretend that every single one of those 542,659 receivers made it into a different home, and each is being used to watch dTTb each and every day. In that case, dTTb, after six years, has penetrated a whopping 0.5 percent of U.S. television households. Break out the champagne!

Maybe because they think the number's too low, or maybe for other reasons, the NAB seems to think Our Beloved Commish ought to ease up on next month's simulcasting requirement, the one that begins April 1, 2003. Our Beloved Commish seems to think that's an issue worthy of consideration, too, so it added the question to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

Yes, the Notice asks you to submit your comments about whether the 50 percent simulcasting requirement ought to kick in on April 1, 2003. It asks you to submit those comments by April 14, 2003. If you have comments on someone else's comments, those are due on May 14, 2003. Then, based on all the comments and replies, Our Beloved Commish will render a decision.

So, sometime after May 14, 2003, Our Beloved Commish will decide whether 50 percent dTTb simulcasting ought to start on April 1, 2003. Send calendars quickly!

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking notes that the analog transmitters are scheduled to be turned off at the end of 2006. And one of the things it asks is whether consumers might benefit from some labeling requirements.

Ahem. The Consumer Electronics Association's ever-helpful research branch reports that about 30 million analog NTSC 4:3 plain-old-ordinary teevees (POOTs) left factories for U.S. dealers last year. That's not a cumulative, six-year figure like the 542,659 dTTb receivers. That's how many left in 2002 alone.

The figure doesn't change a lot from year to year, so even if retailers don't manage to sell 30 percent of them one year, they're bound to sell them the next year. So, give or take a few million, some 30 million analog NTSC 4:3 teevees get sold to consumers each year; add to that, in this age of the DVD, about 19 million VCRs leaving factories for U.S. retailers in 2002. Call it an even 50 million NTSC tuners (I ain't going to quibble about picture-in-picture) eventually sold to consumers.


Now, then, 2002, unless I am very much mistaken, would be four years before 2006, the supposed date of shutting down NTSC. So consumers bought around 50 million NTSC tuners that Our Beloved Commish has been planning to render obsolete in four years, and they ask whether labeling might be helpful to viewers.

Why, yes, I do believe it just might be. "Sucker, the teevee you are about to buy ain't going to receive any signals via antenna in four years."

Yes, I think that could be helpful if there was anyone left on Planet Earth who thinks NTSC will be shut down in the U.S. in 2006. But, since no one does, that would require a slightly different label. "The government has determined that this TV should stop working at some future date, but you will probably be dead first." Hey, it's a start!

Our Beloved Calendar-free Commish has a plan to speed the transition.It's to order dTTb-reception circuitry installed in all devices with NTSC tuners on another one of those wildly successful phased-in schedules.

July 1, 2004, aka next year, sets 36 inches and up get the circuitry. The cost won't even be a blip on a $12,000 HDTV plasma display. On a $500 36-inch 4:3 non-HDTV teevee, it could be a different matter.

By July 1, 2007, even $50 VCRs and $70 13-inch teevees need the circuitry. NAB says it'll be cheap-maybe $16, which would be a mere third of the cost of that there VCR.

But if it's cheap reception circuitry, it might not work. That ain't going to bother the teevee manufacturers, because the buyers of $70 teevees ain't likely to try watching HDTV on them-not while analog NTSC lives.

Sinclair asked Our Beloved Commish to maybe offer some minimum receiver standards so viewers would have a fighting chance at receiving dTTb. Sounds like a good idea to you? Me, too. But it ain't being considered in the second biennial dTTb transition review.

Fortunately, in the calendar-free world of Our Beloved Commish, there's plenty of time. After all, the dTTb-reception-circuitry requirements don't kick in until July 1, 2004, so minimum receiver standards could easily be considered during the third biennial transition review in 2006.