FCC sends wrong signal on digital TV

by ,

by Mike Langberg, San Jose Mercury News

Uncle Sam wants you . . . to buy a digital television.

Yes, our government is now in the business of pushing expensive TV sets on consumers who are wisely keeping their wallets closed.

I'm talking about an unusual marketing effort that sends the Federal Communications Commission careening down a slippery slope.

The FCC issued a news release Oct. 4 touting ``a multi-year, multi-phased consumer education and outreach campaign -- `DTV -- Get it!' -- designed to inform the public about the digital television (DTV) transition.''

Michael Powell, FCC chairman, had this to say in the news release, with italics added by me:

``Although for the vast majority of American households, digital television may be uncharted territory, we will not let them go alone. If you have questions about digital television, the FCC is ready to serve as a primary resource for quick answers. Then we hope they will get DTV -- get the set, get the connection, get the content.''

Glacial speed

The campaign's centerpiece is an informative if visually unappealing Web site (www.dtv.gov) discussing the superior picture and sound delivered by digital television, although the site offers little, if anything, that consumers can't find elsewhere.

The agency, which manages the nation's broadcast spectrum, isn't happy at the glacial speed of transition from the old analog frequencies -- the familiar channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, etc. -- to high-definition digital channels.

There's good reason. Digital broadcasting in the United States marks its sixth anniversary Monday, but there is little to celebrate in what is still one of the most poorly managed introductions ever of a big new consumer technology.

Broadcasters continue to drag their feet in offering high-definition content and ignore earlier promises to offer new types of advanced services that would make the boob tube more interactive.

Hollywood studios continue stalling on providing movies in HD; no major Hollywood releases are available in any HD format today.

Consumer electronics manufacturers, at least, have succeeded in bringing down the cost of HD sets. Almost all TVs selling for more than $1,000 today are capable of displaying digital signals, and some HD sets cost as little as $500.

But manufacturers have failed to deliver low-cost converters to display digital signals on analog TVs; the least expensive converters now cost about $250. And manufacturers haven't delivered affordable solutions for recording HD broadcasts at home; the least expensive hard-disk HD recorders are in the $1,000 range.

In a free market, consumers vote with their dollars. We regularly endorse new technology that is useful, easy to use and affordable -- everything from digital cameras to DVD players to cell phones.

DTV is none of these things. That's why the FCC should focus more energy on fixing digital television's shortcomings, rather than pushing consumers in a direction they don't want to go.

Reselling spectrum

I expect the FCC to be neutral in how citizens spend their money, not working on behalf of broadcasters who are increasingly nervous about the poor return on billions of dollars spent in upgrading to digital transmission -- the cost of a transition the broadcasters themselves eagerly sought.

The FCC also is hoping to eventually stop analog TV broadcasting and resell that spectrum, in what will be a multibillion-dollar windfall for the federal government. That's OK with me, as long as the FCC stays away from DTV hucksterism to get there.

I talked last week with K. Dane Snowden, chief of the FCC's Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau, during a visit to the Bay Area. He conceded the agency's DTV campaign has drawn some criticism for appearing to put the government in the business of selling TVs. But he insisted that is ``absolutely not'' the intent.

``We want consumers to be aware there is a transition going on, and we want to be a resource for that transition,'' Snowden said. The campaign ``seems product-driven, not policy-driven, but only if you don't look at the end result. We'll take that knock if we can get more and more Americans aware of that transition.''

Reselling the analog spectrum will be a huge public benefit, Snowden added, even helping protect the homeland by providing more frequencies to law enforcement and emergency services.

So it could be worse. At least the agency's theme isn't: ``Buy a digital TV, stop a terrorist.''

article originally published at .
The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey