The Plan, Boss! The Plan!

SOMEWHERE OUT THEREYou might not have noticed that not all circus performers are lexicographers. I ain't all that sure where Michael Powell, the head of Our Beloved Commish (a/k/a the FCC), falls on that scale. I know he can still do cartwheels. And I think he has some trouble with the English language.

For instance, way back in April, before our annual holy pilgrimage to the Las Vegas Convention Center, Mikey issued a "Proposal for Voluntary Industry Actions to Speed the Digital Television Transition." But he doesn't seem to understand the words.

Here's what my dictionary says about some of them:

Proposal = Suggestion

Voluntary = By Choice

Actions = Activities

Speed = Hasten

Transition = Change

So Mikey's proposal ought to be a suggestion for industry activity - by choice - to hasten the change to DTV. But it ain't. It ain't doing diddly for the change to DTV, and it ain't being offered as a suggestion with a choice. Here's what Mikey had to say about the choice part back in April: "I intend to seek commitments along these lines in the near future."

"But, Mario, if this all happened back in April, why are you just starting to talk about it now?"

Ask Mikey.He sent out a progress report in July:

"Virtually every industry - cable, broadcast and satellite - has either fully embraced my plan, or made real commitments to advance the transition."

"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."


Mikey got some letters alright, but methinks the writers had more flattery in mind than doing anything they weren't already. "Home Box Office commends the leadership role you have taken...." "NAB embraced your plan...." "I applaud your efforts" [NBC] and "bold and creative proposal" [NCTA]. "We congratulate you on your vision and leadership" [SBCA] for "your visionary voluntary plan" [Zenith].

How do I know all this? Well, Mikey made sure the letters were posted on Our Beloved Commish's Web site, where all can see how the powerful bow down to him - or something like that.

"But, Mario, what does the proposal say?"

What? Oh, yeah - the proposal:

1. Networks - ABC, CBS, Fox, HBO, NBC and Showtime are to "Provide high-definition or other 'value-added programming' during at least 50 percent of their primetime schedule, beginning with the 2002-2003 season. Value-added... could be [HD] innovative multicasting, interactive, etc., so long as it gives consumers something significantly different than [sic] what they currently receive in analog."

So Disney (ABC), Viacom (CBS and Showtime) and HBO, all of which met the terms of this part of the proposal before Powell announced it, sent letters of "commitment." Fox and NBC sent letters, too. Fox's widescreen and progressive-scan stuff probably counts as value-added; methinks NBC's interactive stuff does, too. Score so far on speeding the DTV transition: zip, give or take a hair.

2. Broadcasters - "By January 1, 2003, or as soon thereafter as they commence broadcasting DTV, affiliates of the top four networks in markets 1-100 will obtain and install the equipment necessary to pass through network DTV without degradation of signal quality (e.g., pass through HD programming if that is what its network provides)."

Guess what! Mikey hasn't received commitments yet from 400 broadcasters - not even close. Too bad he didn't mention that in his report. Oh, well. Score so far on speeding the DTV transition: approximately zilch. It's "approximately" on account of Mikey asking the broadcasters to promo their DTV stuff on their analog channels; that might do something. And now it gets really good.

3. Cable - "By January 1, 2003, cable systems with 750 MHz or higher channel capacity will:

"Offer to carry, at no cost, the signals of up to five broadcast or other digital programming services that are providing value-added programming during at least 50 percent of their primetime schedule." They're also supposed to provide the necessary set-top boxes and promo the stuff-in mailings.


Well, now, as Nellie the Neuron understands it, the DTV transition is completed when NTSC broadcasting gets shut down. That's broadcasting, as in transmitters, towers, antennas - you know the drill.

So a cable op can carry five channels of "value-added" programming. Let me see. Headline News has Wink interactivity. So does The Weather Channel. Oh, heck - I'll throw in some HD just to show I'm a good sport: Discovery Theater, HBO and HDNet.

"But, Mario, there are no broadcast channels in there!"

Well, what do you know? You're right! Ergo, the score here on speeding the DTV transition is - may I use negative numbers?

"But, Mario, Commissioner Powell said 'at no cost.' Doesn't HBO HD cost?"

Why, yes, it does. But what did Mikey mean by "at no cost?" What if he meant that the cable ops shouldn't charge HBO? You can't tell me he wasn't thinking about HBO, on account of he included HBO in the very top of his plan and put its letter of "commitment" on his Web site.

NCTA's letter of commitment on behalf of the cable industry clarified the "no cost" phrase to "at no cost to cable operators or broadcasters." There's nothing in there about no cost to consumers, and they're already being soaked an extra $11 per month for an HD-capable set-top box (Comcast) and an extra $8 per month for just one channel of Discovery Theater. Onward!

4. DBS - Carry five services, just as cable, but don't worry about set-top boxes or promo. It's pretty much the same no-sweat proposition as for the cable guys. Speed-the-DTV-transition score: True love (in the tennis sense, of course).

5. Manufacturers - This one's divided into two parts. Part one is cable set-top-box makers. They're supposed to commit to supplying enough HD set-top boxes to meet demand.

My gosh! Is Mikey actually taking a forceful stand and demanding that companies like Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta continue to do what they've been doing? Will wonders never cease?

That leaves only section five, part two, TV-set manufacturers. They're supposed to "Market broadcast, cable and satellite DTV options at point-of-sale."

Remind me again how people watching HBO via satellite speeds the over-the-air DTV transition. But that's the easy part. There's a wee eensy bit more.

"Include over-the-air DTV tuners in new broadcast television receivers according to the following schedule:"

• 36-inch and up - 50 percent by January 1, 2004, 100 percent by January 1, 2005;

• 25- to 35-inch - 50 percent by January 1, 2005, 100 percent by January 1, 2006;

• 13-inch and up - 100 percent by December 31, 2006;

That ain't cheap. Zenith (which, thanks to a royalty on every DTV receiver, thinks this is a wonderful idea) says it'll cost about $200 a set. With around 30 million sets sold a year, that ain't exactly rabbit ears.

"But, Mario, surely you will agree that this part of the proposal will speed the DTV transition."

Will I? What's an "over-the-air DTV tuner"? I ain't making fun of Mikey's lack of engineering savvy. We all know perfectly well enough that by "tuner" he means demodulator and decoders. But what kind of demodulator (and please don't say 8-VSB)?

Way, way, way back four generations of DTV receivers ago (can you remember that far back? I'm talking about the ancient days of 1998), DTV receivers were pretty bad. Now the best ones are a lot better. Heck - at the NAB show this April, Linx tantalized us with some cool-looking technology.

So, Mikey, if a set maker uses 1998 technology in its "DTV tuner," is that good enough for you? How about if there's no multipath equalizer at all? How about if it sets back the DTV transition a dozen years because consumers complain that DTV reception sucks? How about if some broadcasters get received and others don't?

Anyhow, according to Our Beloved Commish's very latest data, as of June of 2001 (hey - these things take time), 68 percent of TV households were on cable and 16 percent were on satellite. So, the Consumer Electronics Association said it would be happy to deliver sets with DTV "tuners" just as soon as (well, anyhow, within 18 months of) standards for DTV-cable compatibility. Mikey didn't like that.

"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 it will act, it demands they be resolved to its satisfaction."

My, how time flies! Way, way, way back in 1998 (June 11, to be exact), Mikey, himself, said he supported the decision to "require [cable] operators to make technical interface information available." He said, "By and large, these rules are directly on target with the purpose of section 629, to 'assure the commercial availability' of converter boxes and other equipment used to obtain multichannel video services from providers other than the programming distributor."

The rules he was talking about were supposed to make cable boxes available at retail starting July 1, 2000. You (and by "you" I mean to exclude Canadians) seen any cable boxes in your local Best Buy or Circuit City anytime in the last two years? Me, neither. But the summer-of-'02 Mikey went on.

"Other industries could have made similar demands. Thankfully, they did not."

Well, DUH! "CBS, do you solemnly commit to do what you're already doing and not spend any more money doing it?" "Yes." "Toshiba, do you solemnly commit to spending a fortune putting an 8-VSB demodulator into every single TV you sell even though most people will hook the TV up to cable or satellite and never use the danged thing, and the few that do try off-air reception could hate you and never buy your products again?" "Say what?"

Zenith, watching its 8-VSB patent position ticking away, thinks Mikey's proposal is "a major step in the right direction" (it also thinks the "no cost" part of the cable section means "at no cost to consumers"). The funny thing is that Zenith ain't yet providing very many "DTV tuners" in its own TVs. But the company sure knows how to write a flattering letter.

"Some may view Zenith's call to arms as self-serving based on our intellectual property position related to the ATSC standard." Heavens to Betsy! Why would anyone think that?