Cable Providers, TV Makers Reach Labeling Agreement

Entertainment systems may be easier for consumers to hook up in the near future, thanks to an agreement on labeling standards reached in Washington, DC on May 24 by representatives of the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Cable Television Association. Labels to appear on new equipment will make it clear whether the digital TV sets provide only cable programming, or whether they are also compatible with other digital devices, such as set-top boxes providing interactive capabilities, video-on-demand, and other services.

The agreement—initiated in April at the insistence of Federal Communications Commission regulators—should help eliminate consumers' reluctance to buy uncertain technology and should boost the market presence of digital television. "We have now passed one more milestone on the road to DTV," said CEA president Gary Shapiro. "No longer will ambiguous terms like 'cable-ready' cause consumers confusion," added NCTA president Robert Sachs.

"Final resolution of these issues will contribute significantly to the swift rollout of digital television capabilities to the American public," noted FCC chairman William Kennard. The labeling agreement follows one concerned with cable compatibility, ironed out by the two industries earlier this year. Digital TV receivers coming on the market next year will be able to work with cable systems. (Approximately two-thirds of American viewers get television signals via cable.)

The contentious copy-protection issue remains unresolved. The FCC has begun a review intended to settle the issue, which involves manufacturers, cable operators, broadcasters, and Hollywood studios. The CEA has long supported consumers' rights to record or transfer copyrighted material for private use, and argued in comments filed this past week that consumers' recording rights should not be changed in the digital era.

The cable industry is wary of its liability in enabling piracy by making high-quality digital signals easily available; broadcasters and the film industry would prefer to see a strong encryption system in place to discourage illegal copying. The FCC had sought comment on proposed rules dealing with copy-protection technology, an issue that is still the subject of negotiations between content creators and set manufacturers.