CEA: Broadcasters Dragging Feet on DTV

The Consumer Electronics Association has accused the American broadcasting industry of delaying the transition to digital television by refusing to make the necessary investments in equipment and programming. The consumer electronics industry and related businesses are moving forward aggressively while broadcasters drag their feet, the CEA stated in a letter delivered March 8 to Federal Communications Commission chairman Bill Kennard.

CEA officials were responding to a letter sent to Kennard on February 22 by the Association for Maximum Service Television, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the Association of Local Television Stations. The groups' letter had indicated that a majority of broadcasters favor a delay in the DTV transition, a development of enormous concern to manufacturers who have committed to producing and delivering receivers, displays, and other equipment for the new format mandated by the FCC. The CEA claims that 165 new DTV products are stocked by more than 250 retailers nationwide, and that more than 155,410 DTV units have been sold in the US since the introduction of DTV in August 1998. The numbers are impressive, but represent a tiny fraction of the more than 97 million TV-equipped homes in the US.

The CEA claims that development of digital programming has lagged, inhibiting further sales. "Having committed more than a billion dollars to digital television, the consumer electronics industry strongly objects to any proposed delay in the DTV transition," wrote CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro. "Even as the broadcast industry offers DTV excuses, our industry offers an increasing array of DTV products." Broadcasters are shirking their responsibility to provide high-quality, digitally originated content to viewers, Shapiro claimed, noting that Congress loaned the broadcast industry billions of dollars' worth of spectrum on the condition that high-quality DTV programming would soon be made available to the American public.

"Some broadcasters have aired compelling content," Shapiro observed, but "the vast majority of broadcasters are actually passing through lower-quality, digitized NTSC programming. Of course, individual broadcasters are free to elect not to transition to DTV, in which case they should be encouraged to promptly return their borrowed spectrum to the American public. Indeed, broadcasters should use it or lose it."

Shapiro described as "shameful" the broadcast industry's reluctance to push forward with the new format. "It's disturbing that broadcaster calls for delay come just as DTV is taking off," he said. He pointed to recent agreements between the cable and consumer-electronics industries providing specifications for the direct interconnection of DTV sets and cable systems, and the efforts undertaken by direct-broadcast satellite providers to supply their subscribers with HDTV programming as evidence of other industries working toward making digital television a full-time reality. He encouraged the FCC to consider rules that would promote "the sort of compelling programming that would drive even more consumers to purchase DTV receivers." The broadcast industry's position is that no business model exists to make digital broadcasting profitable, given the small percentage of the total television audience equipped to receive DTV programming.