Surprise! It's 2002!

SOMEWHERE OUT THEREYou might not have noticed that time marches on. I mean, even creationists believe there was a time before television, eh?

I'm sure Michael "Mikey" Powell, head of the FCC (aka Our Beloved Commish) fondly remembers a time when he used to crawl onto poppa Colin's lap for a snuggle, but he ain't likely to do that today without causing pain, if not physical damage. As the world turns, kids get bigger and heavier.

Mikey's big accomplishment recently was getting Our Beloved Commish to vote 3-1 on Aug. 8 to change one part of Mikey's voluntary April "Proposal to Speed the DTV Transition" from voluntary to mandatory. Which part? Here are some pre-Aug. 8 hints from Mikey:

"The missing piece of the DTV puzzle is the consumer electronics industry. We have not yet received a final response from the manufacturers on the phased-in inclusion of DTV tuners in new sets."

"The CE industry's response on DTV tuners is so limited, and loaded down with so many conditions, that I believe it amounts to no commitment at all. Not only does the CE industry demand that certain issues be resolved before they will act, they demand they be resolved to their satisfaction."

So now Mikey's voluntary timetable has been extended by six months and is the law of the land. By July 1, 2004 some 36-inch TVs will have to add DTV reception; by July 1, 2007, it'll be every TV 13 inches and up, every VCR with a tuner - methinks even tuner cards for PCs.


I ain't going to rant this lunar cycle on whether this is a good idea or a bad idea. I ain't going to mention what this'll do to the cost of a cheap VCR or PC tuner card. I ain't going to mention the fact that manufacturers can delay their requirements for a year by increasing the bezel size on 36-inch TVs and calling them "35.9-inch." I ain't going to point out the problems of cheap 8-VSB demods without multipath equalizers. I ain't going to question whether this means more DTV receivers or fewer NTSC ones (the order applies only to TV receivers).

Nosiree, Bob! You won't catch me mentioning any of those things here. I'm just a wee mite interested this lunation in how and why Our Beloved Commish came to its conclusion. Was the order requiring DTV reception revenge for the Consumer Electronics Association's not sending a "You are the world" letter to Mikey?

"I think it would be naive to think that there is no relationship between the two." That's not me talking. The quotation marks indicate that it's someone else, in this case Ken Ferree, chief of the FCC Media Bureau. But what does he know?

Let me go right to the source, Mikey himself. Here's a tidbit from his comments on the order:

"There are approximately 81 million television sets in the U.S. (over 30 percent of the total) that are not connected to any subscription video service and rely solely on free, over-the-air broadcasting. Of those sets that rely on over-the-air service, about 46.5 million are in broadcast-only homes and 34.5 million are in homes that subscribe to a multichannel video programming service. Thus, over-the-air tuners affect tens of millions of consumers."

That sounds like a good, solid reason to try to get DTV reception to the unconnected. Now have a look at this tidbit:

"... there are approximately 46.5 million television sets in broadcast-only homes. An additional 34.5 million television sets in households subscribing to a multichannel video programming distributor ("MVPD") service remain unconnected to the MVPD service. Thus, a total of 81 million television sets (or approximately 30.3 percent of the 267 million television sets in the U.S.) are not connected to any MVPD service and receive all broadcast signals over the air."

Do you see any similarities between the two? Both are available from the FCC Web site. Neither is an official FCC document.

The first is Mikey's personal Aug. 8 statement about what Our Beloved Commish did in ordering mandatory DTV-reception devices. The second is comments filed by the NAB on Aug. 3 (and stamped as received by the commission on the same day). Is it so surprising that on Aug. 8 Mikey would use stuff filed on Aug. 3?

"But, Mario, you have those three dots at the beginning of the second excerpt. Didn't you once say to be wary of those?"

How touching! It brings tears to my eyes that you've learned something. My heart swells! If only I had a head to match! Oh, my word, yes, it's always important to be wary of an ellipsis, the indicator of missing word(s).

My word is "yes." Their words are "According to data in the Spring 2001 Home Technology Monitor Ownership Report prepared by Statistical Research Inc. ('Home Technology Report')." And, just to dot all my "i"s and cross all my "t"s, let the record show that the original had a comma after the closing parenthesis, not a period.


Allow me to examine those NAB words. Statistical Research Inc. is a highly reputable firm that does studies. Methinks the part that conducts and distributes the Home Technology Monitor Ownership Report is now called Knowledge Networks. That's a hint. Pause. Pause. Pause. Didn't get it yet?

Okay, here's the biggee, "Spring 2001." Now do you get it?

Yes, the NAB filed its report, "In the matter of Annual Assessment of the Status of Competition in the Market for the Delivery of Video Programming" (CS Docket No. 01-129), with Our Beloved Commish on Aug. 3. That is, it was filed on Aug. 3, 2001. Mikey's statement was made on Aug. 8, 2002. And SRI actually conducted the study in February 2001, a full year and a half before Mikey's statement.

"But, Mario, what's the difference?"

Well, now, I could probably say a thing or two, but Our Beloved Commish does it so much better in what is an official document in that CS Docket No. 01-129, FCC 01-389, the Eighth Annual Report on competition in the market for video programming. It was released on Jan. 14 of this year. Page 95 says that, as of June 2001 (that's still 14 months before Mikey's statement), 86.42 percent of U.S. TV households subscribed to an MVPD.

That would mean that just 13.58 percent don't. The NAB's Aug. 3, 2001 filing puts the broadcast-only households at 20.9 percent based on SRI and 20.2 percent based on Nielsen.

Why the difference between Our Beloved Commish and the others? Our Beloved Commish added up subscription figures, and there could have been some overlap, and Our Beloved Commish was measuring the figure in June, not in February. But that's not as important as the annual growth rate of the proportion of U.S. households that do subscribe to an MVPD. The growth rate was measured with the same criteria each year.

From June 2000 to June 2001, it was 4.6 percent. From June 1997 through June 2001 it averaged an annual growth rate of more than 4.6 percent.

So, suppose the SRI figure for broadcast-only households as of February 2001 is correct. That's 79.1 percent subscribing to cable, satellite, or whatever other bizzaro stuff Our Beloved Commish includes in MVPD. Now let it grow at 4.6 percent a year:

February 2002 - 82.7 percent

February 2003 - 86.5 percent

February 2004 - 90.5 percent

July 2004 - 92.3 percent

That last date is when the first receivers with DTV-reception capability are ordered to hit the market. But why stop there?

July 2005 - 96.5 percent

Before July 2006 - 100 percent

My, my! More than a year before the date on which all VCRs and TVs 13 inches or over (based on 4:3, naturally) are ordered to add DTV reception - whatever it's going to cost consumers - I've run out of numbers.

Now then, I ain't saying that's going to happen, because it ain't. In eleventeen decades or so, the proportion of households with teevee ain't yet hit 100 percent. The U.S. of A. always has at least a few non-conformists. But 81 million TV sets' worth in 2007? Uh-huh.

Geez! Wouldn't it be nice if the head of Our Beloved Commish could at least tell the difference between 2001 and 2002?