Powell: Content is King

The key to growth for digital television is a broad array of readily available content, according to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Michael Powell.

"Content is king," media moguls would say. No one in the consumer electronics industry would argue with that. It has long been agreed that consumers will flock to DTV only when there is plenty of programming available, despite the seemingly endless chicken-or-egg arguments that broadcasters, cable providers, and equipment makers have tossed about since the format's inception.

Powell made his opinions clear in a letter sent in late April to US House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-LA), in which he explained that the FCC will conduct an investigation into the growth of digital television, to determine which factors help or hinder its development. Information gathered from a wide sampling of media sources will help the agency form future digital television policies, Powell added.

The primary focus of the investigation will be the availability of digital content—as provided by producers and as delivered by cable companies. "Content is the engine that will drive the digital television transition forward," Powell wrote. "Consumers will invest in digital equipment only when they can obtain compelling new content that is significantly better than what they have in analog." Video equipment makers have long complained about foot-dragging by the cable industry, which has complained that digital content occupies too much bandwidth and that there is little demand for it among cable subscribers. Under pressure from Congress and the FCC, the nation's ten largest cable companies last year agreed to begin offering some digital programming.

Investigators will also look into broadcasters' use of their allotted bandwidth to see if it is being used to its full potential. At the beginning of the DTV rollout, all television stations in the US were given a free 6MHz channel for digital use. Their agreement with the FCC was that once the transition from analog to digital was complete, they would relinquish their analog broadcasting licenses for sale on the open market. FCC officials will look into broadcasters' DTV programming development efforts, to see if they are "permitting much of their digital spectrum to lie fallow." The hoped-for turnover of RF real estate is still a long way off.

The DTV probe will also examine the so-called "digital tuner mandate," a federal requirement that new television sets have tuner compatible with digital broadcasts. Powell wants to make sure that the digital tuners included in new sets offer clearly superior picture and sound when compared to an analog broadcast. At present there are no minimum performance standards for digital tuners, but that could change as a result of the FCC investigation.