FCC Chair Urges a Speedy Switch to Digital TV

SAN FRANCISCO (04/11/2000) - The chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission urged broadcasters to make a speedy transition to digital television, but warned them not to rely on government intervention to make it happen.

"Digital technology is the biggest opportunity for broadcasters for a generation," FCC Chairman William Kennard said this morning in a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters trade show here.

Going digital offers broadcasters an opportunity to improve picture quality for their viewers, and to wrap additional Internet-based services around their programming. Using a set-top box equipped with a hard drive, for example, viewers would be able to store prime time shows and watch them any time of the day or night, Kennard said.

"Americans have already awakened to the power of digital technology in their lives and they want more of it, and they want it from more platforms," the FCC chief said. "The transition to digital is simply inevitable; it will happen as surely as night and day."

But the transition has emerged as a thorny issue between the U.S.'s 1,600 television stations and the FCC. Broadcasters want the FCC to ensure them of an audience by forcing cable companies to carry their digital programs, much the same as cable providers are required to carry analog broadcasts today. The cable industry has argued that its content shouldn't be regulated by the government.

"It's too simple an answer for broadcasters to come to the FCC and expect we would mandate" that cable companies must carry both digital and analog signals, Kennard said. It's not clear to the FCC yet that cable networks have the capacity to carry the additional channels, he added.

"We're not going to rush to judgment on the must-carry issue; we're going to rely on you and the cable industry to tell us what's the best public policy decision," Kennard said.

Ed Fritts, chairman and chief executive officer of the NAB, told reporters afterwards that a "digital train wreck" is approaching if the FCC doesn't act soon. Smaller stations simply won't invest in making the switch to digital unless they are assured of an audience for their content, he said.

"We obviously have very strong disagreements" with Kennard's position, Fritts said. The argument that cable companies don't have the capacity to handle the additional broadcasts is "simply a myth," he said.

The FCC chairman also touched on whether cable providers should be forced to allow competing Internet service providers to offer broadband Internet services over their networks. In most U.S. cities consumers are served by only one cable provider, and therefore have access to only one high-speed cable Internet service.

"The marketplace will generate a solution to open access because consumers are going to demand it," Kennard said. The FCC has seen "encouraging statements" recently from the likes of America Online Inc. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Steve Case, he said.

"If it turns out that consumer welfare is being threatened by monopolization or too much consolidation, we'll be prepared to act," Kennard said.

Information about NAB is on the Web at http://www.nab.org. The show runs through Friday. The FCC is on the Web at http://www.fcc.gov/.

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