NAB: Feds to Blame for Slow DTV Rollout

The finger-pointing and barb-hurling over the slow rollout of digital television continued through mid-May. The latest episode occurred on Wednesday the 17th, when the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) laid the blame on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for its laxity in requiring cable providers to carry digital signals. Electronics manufacturers should also be held to stricter standards, the NAB said.

Three years into the Federally mandated changeover to digital broadcasting, appropriate programming is still scarce, equipment sales are sluggish, standards issues still rage, and accusations fly between consumer electronics manufacturers, broadcasters, cable providers, and the FCC. Electronics dealers are beginning to complain about hardware incompatibilities—see this week's "Soapbox"—while consumers wonder why they're expected to pay thousands for hardware for which there is little software.

The NAB and other broadcasting organizations, including the Association for Local TV Stations, believe that a major effort from regulators in Washington would go a long way toward furthering the format's development. In particular, they favor imposing strong "must-carry" regulations on the cable industry, which supplies television signals to over two-thirds of American viewers. This belief is shared by the Consumer Electronics Association, whose president, Gary Shapiro, has spoken out repeatedly on the subject. The cable industry has balked at carrying digital signals because of heavy bandwidth demands, which could force them to delete other profitable programming. The CEA says a larger portion of the fault lies with broadcasters whose high-definition output to date consists of a few big sports events. The CEA, on the other hand, has resisted efforts by broadcasters to have the FCC institute stricter hardware specifications.

No one doubts that digital television, the market event, is a mess. At the heart of it all is the FCC, which, despite mandating the changeover from analog and suggesting a timeline (now extended to January 1, 2007), has been reluctant to establish standards, preferring instead to leave such decisions to "market forces." Eighteen permutations of DTV and ongoing controversy over the best technique for terrestrial broadcasting are the result of the agency's "hands off" policy. The NAB and its allies would prefer the agency take a stronger leadership role in the stalled launch of digital TV.