Here is the letter that I have drafted to send to the two Senators in my state as well as my Representative in the House. Any proofreading that could be provided for factual accuracy would be very much appreciated. It ended up longer than I had intended, but I felt that there was so much information to cover.
February 5, 2002
Senator Maria Cantwell
717 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
I am writing to request assistance with a concern that I share with many others, our country's transition to a digital television (DTV) system. This transition is supposed to be completed by 2006. However, at the current pace of change, we will be nowhere near the checkpoints originally set for that date. While there are many factors involved, a few main sticking points seem to be holding back the widespread acceptance and rollout of this mandated format.
The first breakdown is with the broadcasters, represented by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). When they first requested additional spectrum from the American people, it was for the purpose of providing high definition (HD) programming. While only digital programming is mandated, HD programming was clearly the intent of the loan of additional spectrum. We are now nearly halfway into the transition period from analog to digital and the availability of HD programming is mixed at best. ABC and CBS provide a significant chunk of their primetime programming in HD. However, NBC has but two shows in HD and FOX refuses to broadcast in any HD format, choosing instead a much lower resolution digital format. Live programming such as sports or news is only very rarely shown in any DTV format at any time of the day. In addition, the broadcasters do very little if any to promote the fact that a (H)DTV signal is available. It is hard for most consumers to justify the additional expense required to acquire HDTV equipment when the programming choices are so slim and viewer's awareness of that limited programming is so low.
The second breakdown is with the equipment manufacturers, headed by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). While the prices of digital large screen projection TVs has come down to the point where they are very price competitive with analog projection TVs, that isn't true in smaller direct view sets where there is at least a 50-100% premium to purchase a digital TV. Unfortunately, very few of these digital sets have the ability to receive any DTV programming thus requiring an external DTV receiver to receive those broadcasts. The prices on these receivers currently start at $500 and the selection is extremely limited. Of the millions of televisions sold this year, a very small percentage will have the ability to receive DTV broadcasts. In addition, very few of the consumers purchasing these sets even realize that they are should be obsolete in four years without an external DTV receiver. This does not bode well for the success of this transition in 2006, as almost all these TVs will still be in service. I believe that mandatory DTV tuners in all TVs produced may be required to resolve this issue much as closed captioning is required now.
A third breakdown is with the FCC. Since Michael Powell took over as Chairman of the FCC, he has established a pattern of letting the market decide that will not drive us toward success in the DTV arena. Two main areas of opportunity fall under the FCC's purvey. The first is enforcing the deadlines for local broadcasters beginning their DTV broadcasts. All commercial broadcasters are supposed to have their DTV signal online by May 2002. Estimates that I have seen indicate that at least 1/3 of all local broadcasters will fail to meet this deadline. However, the FCC recently decided to allow broadcasters to file hardship requests if they chose rather than meeting this deadline. All of the source programming from the networks and DTV receivers in the world won't help the transition if local broadcasters aren't available to pass the signal along to the viewers. This brings me to the second opportunity for the FCC, cable carriage of DTV signals. While DTV signals can be received with relative ease with an antenna as I am doing in my home, 60+% of this country receives its programming from cable. Cable companies must carry analog TV signals due to must carry laws. However, the FCC has declined to attempt to extend must carry to DTV signals. Cable carriage of these signals would go a long way toward eliminating one major hurdle toward DTV acceptance, the requirement of using/installing an antenna.
The last main breakdown is the issue of copy protection. Premium content providers, headed by the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) are demanding extensive copy protection measures before they will release their content in a HD format. While I certainly understand and respect their desire to not have their content spread illicitly, their demands are causing a stalemate with the CEA and retarding production of updated HDTV equipment. Court interpretation of fair use laws ensures that consumers have the right to copy and duplicate copyrighted material for their own personal, non-commercial use. However, the MPAA appears to be attempting to deny fair use rights to DTV material using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) as support. In addition, the copy protection provisions that they reputedly are demanding would render all of the DTV equipment currently being sold obsolete. A copy protection standard that balances the needs of consumers and content providers and protects legacy HDTV equipment must be designated in the very near term to allow the transition to proceed.
As you can see, many issues confront the transition to the DTV system that Congress deemed important enough to write into law. While Rep. Billy Tauzin and Rep. Ed Markey are both attempting to bridge the gap between the CEA, MPAA, NAB and FCC and Rep. Rick Boucher is re-examining the DMCA and its impact on fair use rights, more urgency needs to be brought to this effort. I believe that we have reached a point where Congress must create and implement legislation requiring the various parties involved in the DTV rollout to perform their share. In addition, I believe that this legislation should include provisions requiring a certain amount of HDTV programming, as was the original intent of the creation of the DTV system. Any assistance that you could provide with these issues would be very much appreciated.
Thank you for your attention.