HDTV or Else

Testifying last week before the House Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade, and Consumer Protection, Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) president and CEO Gary Shapiro described what he called a "successful consumer transition" to digital television (DTV), this characterized by broad product offerings, increased programming from alternative media sources, steady sales, and high consumer satisfaction with DTV products. But all is not rosy: According to Shapiro, broadcast-industry delays in delivering significant HDTV programming and the industry's potential misuse of the DTV spectrum to provide subscription data services could seriously slow the transition's current momentum.

The CEA says that TV manufacturers have introduced approximately 200 different products, and that DTV is available at hundreds of retail locations across the country. CEA sales data show that more than 300,000 DTV products (including DTV and HDTV monitors, integrated sets, and standalone set-top boxes) have been sold to dealers, representing a consumer investment of nearly $800 million. Shapiro states that "there is no doubt that, after 10 years of research and development, the consumer-electronics industry has upheld its end of the bargain by making a wide selection of digital television products available at retail."

Shapiro reports that DTV owners are happy with the new digital video technology, but that "they are dissatisfied with the amount of available broadcast programming." Shapiro pointed out that while consumers have little access to quality HDTV programming from broadcast sources, content from other media, such as satellite and cable, is increasing: "We are pleased with this explosion in non-broadcast DTV programming. While the broadcasters are important, the fact is that 2/3 of Americans receive their primary video signal through cable, and an additional 12 million consumers through direct-to-home satellite. While we remain committed to ensuring that all Americans have access to the wonders of digital television, we expect these trends to continue and increase in the digital world."

Regarding the recent flap over HDTV standards (see previous story), Shapiro reiterated the industry's support of the current broadcast standard. "We do believe that the existing, FCC-approved 8-VSB transmission standard is the best choice for the US broadcast environment," he said. "The 8-VSB standard was chosen by broadcasters after a decade of testing because it allows broadcasters to replicate the current radius of analog service to fixed receivers, does not interfere with existing analog signals, has a data capacity sufficient for HDTV, and allows for efficient power use. The standard has been reaffirmed by recent tests, such as those conducted by CBS, as well as the 'real world' usage by consumers."

Recounting earlier promises by the broadcast industry to deliver HDTV programming in return for their free use of valuable public spectrum, Shapiro urged Congress to "focus broadcasters on increasing the amount of high-quality content while keeping the transition moving forward. The broadcast industry's failure to deliver significant programming and renewed squabbling among some broadcasters over the transmission standard could threaten the public's confidence in the new technology.

"Having received their public spectrum, we believe that all broadcasters now have the obligation of keeping their end of the bargain. Broadcaster decisions to use the spectrum primarily for services other than delivering free over-the-air television abrogate the agreement with Congress and denies the public trust. If we interrupt the public's confidence in the DTV transition, it may take years to recover," said Shapiro. Shapiro's full testimony is available on DTVweb.

In a press release, the CEA also expressed its full support for comments made by Congressman Billy Tauzin (R-LA), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, demanding that broadcasters provide high-definition television (HDTV). As he closed the hearing, Tauzin told broadcasters that any attempt to lease or sell for subscription data or other services the digital spectrum provided to them for the DTV transition would be a "deal breaker." He said that the spectrum must be used to broadcast HDTV, and warned that it will be a "very big mistake" if broadcasters do not provide HDTV to consumers.