DTV Primer

Chris Llana, Editor


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Senate Commerce Committee Holds DTV Hearings

Updated July 20, 2005

The Senate Commerce Committee held hearings today on the transition to digital television. There were two sessions--one in the morning and one in the afternoon, each with a distinctive flavor. Each session lasted about two hours.

The morning session pitted broadcasters against cable and satellite providers. The afternoon session was more varied, but was generally focused on what will happen to the 700 MHz-band spectrum that will be freed up when broadcasters finally shut down their analog channels.

Thankfully, there was a consensus on the Committee that the final analog hard shut-off date would be December 31, 2008, the same date proposed by the other two bills pending in Congress. No evidence of a Commerce Committee bill, although one presumes that committee staff has a draft by now. There are a lot of hard issues still needing to be worked out and decided and not a lot of time.

These were whole-committee hearings. Slightly more than half of the Committee members were in attendance for at least one of the sessions.

The contributions of the Committee members who showed up for the hearings varied. John Ensign of Nevada and Jim DeMint of South Carolina showed good understanding of the issues by poking holes in several witnesses' thin arguments.

Frank Lautenburg of New Jersey and especially John Sununu of New Hampshire made insightful statements in the morning, revealing a very good understanding of the issues and agendas, and then were not heard from again.

Sununu suggested that special interests should not use consumers to further their own agendas, accusing those special interests of declaring that consumers are not intelligent enough to handle the transition to digital TV [thereby justifying the lack of educational efforts]. He didn't think people having to buy a converter box would be a crisis.

Hopefully these two Senators will more fully participate in driving this legislation to a successful conclusion.

More than one senior Senator displayed a startling lack of comprehension of the basic technologies and issues that are central to the transition to digital television. This was discouraging, but I'm hopeful that staff will take up the slack.

The Issues

  • End of Transition Date. The Committee called for a consensus and got it, more or less, for December 31, 2008. I say more or less because the broadcasters continue to resist the end-2008 date even though that date is a 2-year postponement over the current statutory shut-off date.

    When Senator McCain pushed for affirmation for the end-2008 date, National Association of Broadcasters-head Fritts waffled by saying yes to end-2008, "or sometime in 2009." His table-mate, Association of Public Television Stations Pres and CEO Lawson, added his solid endorsement by saying the hard date might have to be pushed back if consumers weren't ready.

    Consumers Union's Kimmelman in the afternoon suggested that the hard date might have to be changed in a couple of years, perhaps reflecting Consumer Reports magazine's long-time pessimism about a timely transition to digital, or perhaps that magazine's history of recommending analog sets.

    On the other side was Senator Rockefeller's musings about an early cut-off date, all the better to quickly get new spectrum to public safety agencies.

    Notwithstanding any of this, the end-2008 analog cut-off date seems secure.

  • Multi-cast Must-carry. The broadcasters showed up in the morning with an obviously well-coordinated message: Congress should overturn the FCC's ruling that cable providers are only obligated to carry broadcasters' primary video signal, and not the up-to-five standard-definition channels that they can broadcast in lieu of one high-def channel.

    NAB's Fritts, L.A.'s Telemundo TV station's Abud, and even PBS's Lawson were all in lock-step. No matter what the issue, they all added the constant refrain--but to do that, we need multi-cast must-carry.

    It seemed particularly incongruous coming from PBS, which has successfully completed negotiations with the cable industry for voluntary carriage of their standard definition multi-cast channels. In past public forums, this voluntary agreement has been presented in support of the argument that if a broadcaster develops compelling programming, cable companies will carry it.

    When Senator Vitter (Louisiana) turned the discussion toward the difficulties of educating the consumer for an orderly completion of the transition to digital, Telemundo's Abud noted that their viewers called them before they called 911, but they needed multi-cast must-carry. NAB's Fritts offered to run the educational campaigns needed for the transition, adding that they needed must-carry. Vitter was non-plussed--what does must-carry have to do with preparing the public for the transition?

    Senator Snowe of Maine seemed to link the issue of multi-cast must-carry with broadcasters' public service requirement to provide local programming to the community. The implication was that if broadcasters could not get their multiple standard-definition channels carried by cable companies, then the local communities would be deprived of local programming, a concept that Fritts and Abud tried to reinforce.

    This of course ignores the existence of the TV stations' primary channel, which is all they've ever had to carry local programming. The American Cable Association's Knorr pointed out that many local broadcasters can barely meet their local content requirement with one channel.

    The cable representatives argued that the broadcasters might fill the secondary standard-definition channels with nationally-produced programming (weather, shopping channels, etc.), and not locally produced educational and news shows, etc.

    Nevada's Senator Ensign asked Fritts if he would support a requirement that 80% of such secondary channel programming would be produced locally (as part of a must-carry law). Fritts demurred, saying they would be happy to sit down and discuss; he didn't know if the right number would be 80%, 60%, or 40%. . . Ensign suggested that competition and the consumer should be the guide for what was carried.

    The broadcasters kept coming back to the argument that if the cable companies had to carry their 6 MHz analog channel, and then their 6 MHz high-definition primary channel, they should also have to carry any number of secondary channels they could fit in their 6 MHz.

    Senator DeMint (South Carolina) asked if consumers could receive over-the-air their multi-cast channels without too much trouble. Fritts replied yes. DeMint then asked if the broadcasters weren't then trying to use the transition in order to gain more cable channels. Fritts returned to his 6 MHz defense.

    My own take on multi-cast must-carry is that the change from the old NTSC standard to a new high-definition standard was orignally intended to give consumers a better picture, and not more channels of the same old standard definition.

    To the extent that must-carry would encourage broadcasters to broadcast five mediocre standard-definition channels in lieu of one high-definition channel, I'm against it. Putting out five channels instead of one would fragment the viewing audience, and fragment resources available to any one of the multiple channels. We don't need more programming; we need better programming.

  • Down-Conversion The broadcasters want Congress to require all cable operators to carry broadcast programming in its original form. That is, digital high-definition programming should be delivered to cable subscribers in digital high-definition form, and not first down-converted to analog standard-definition.

    The cable interests plan to provide a digital/HD feed to their customers with digital sets and a downconverted analog feed to their customers with analog TV sets, when there is sufficient capacity in the local cable company's system to do so.

    For those smaller bandwidth-limited cable systems without sufficient capacity to carry both digital and analog versions of every broadcaster's channel, either everything will be downconverted or the digital version will be carried and digital-to-analog converter boxes will be provided for customers with analog sets.

    Mr. Knorr added that if that service is unacceptable to any customer, they can switch to a satellite provider. That's competition. If cable companies are not allowed to downconvert, many more consumers will need digital-to-analog converter boxes, and that's going to cost someone a lot of money.

    There didn't seem to be a lot of Committee interest in pursuing this issue. I'm assuming they will side with cable on this one.

  • Recovered Spectrum. Many of the Senators were concerned about facilitating the return of RF spectrum from TV broadcasters for use by public safety agencies and new wireless applications. To that extent, they were looking for an early and certain date for the shut-down of analog TV broadcasts.

    Nobody was arguing against this (motherhood and apple pie).

    There were some questions about the nature of commercial uses of the returned spectrum, and the potential revenues an auction might bring.

Witnesses for the morning session were:

  1. Mr. Edward Fritts
    President and CEO, National Association of Broadcasters

    Fritts touted broadcasters' critical role in communicating vital public safety information to people in the path of Hurrican Dennis, reaaffirmed that consumers were central in the transition, urged that cable providers be required to carry broadcasters' analog signals to analog customers and digital signals to their customers having digital sets. Broadcasters' multi-cast channels should be carried by cable providers; if they didn't, broadcasters would not be able to provide these extra channels to consumers.

  2. Mr. Manuel Abud
    Vice President & General Manager, KVEA-TV in Los Angeles (Telemundo)

    He said that 43% of Spanish-language consumers rely on over-the-air broadcasts, that there should be a government subsidy for digital-to-analog converter boxes, there should be a digital multi-cast must-carry requirement. Without cable carriage of broadcasters' multiple channels, there is no business model. There should be no degradation by cable providers of digital/HD programming.

  3. Mr. Kyle McSlarrow
    President & CEO, National Cable & Telecommunications Association

    They want flexibility to downconvert digital broadcasts for their analog consumers. Cable companies provide an array of valuable services over their cables (broadband data, VOD, telephone services, etc.); with limited capacity, the would be forced to drop some of these services if they had to carry multiple signals from each broadcaster.

  4. Mr. Patrick Knorr
    Vice Chairman, American Cable Association

    They want to be able to downconvert so they won't have to put a converter box in every home. He says broadcasters digital signals are not strong enough to reach every consumer who can receive an analog signal. He complained about broadcasters refusing retransmission consent for their digital channels or charging smaller cable companies fees for their digital feeds (while not charging larger cable companies).

  5. Mr. Richard Slenker
    Executive Vice President, DirecTV

    They are spending lots of money on new HD-capable satellites to provide local HD channels to as many consumers as possible. If they have to carry multiple signals from every broadcaster, they will not be able to serve as many local markets. There are technical differences between cable and satellite systems that justify different regulatory treatment.

  6. Mr. John M. Lawson
    President and CEO, Association of Public Television Stations

    He said there should be a well-funded campaign to educate consumers about the transition to digital TV. If this does not happen, it might be necessary to postpone the end of the transition. He said over-the-air consumers correlated with public broadcasting viewers, and that consumers wanted more free channels, something PBS can provide with multi-cast and must-carry.

And for the afternoon session:

  1. Mr. Harlin R. McEwen
    Chairman, Communications & Technology Committee of the Association of Chiefs of Police

    First responders need more spectrum for better radio communications. Terrorist attacks mean better radios and getting TV out of the 700 MHz band. He wants systems facilitating interoperability between agencies.

  2. Mr. Charles Townsend
    President & CEO, Aloha Partners

    His companies have bought spectrum for new wireless services. Recovering the spectrum after analog TV shut-down will enable 1) wireless broadband for people who now have no access to broadband, 2) new wireless services such as WiMax, and 3) mobile TV and radio.

  3. Mr. Mike Kennedy
    Senior Vice President, Motorola

    700 MHz spectrum has favorable technical characteristics for commercial wireless services (telemedicine, telework, distance learning, front-line responders. Motorola has developed a cheap ($50) digital-to-analog converter box which he demonstrated to the Committee. They developed the box to facilitate the transition to digital TV, so that the 700 MHz spectrum would become available promptly.

  4. Mr. Gary Shapiro
    President & CEO, Consumers Electronics Association

    He minimized the number of consumers who would be affected by the transition (the number of consumers relying on over-the-air broadcasts). He restated his opposition to an early digital tuner mandate for TV sets smaller than 25". His presentation seemed mostly to be overlooked in comparison to the other issues discussed by the afternoon panel.

  5. Mr. Gene Kimmelman
    Senior Director Public Policy, Consumers Union

    He made his usual plea that all consumers should not have to pay anything to keep their old analog TV sets operating after the end of the transition. He said manufacturers and retailers told the consumer that the analog set they bought would continue to work. Of course Consumers Union's own Consumer Reports magazine has been telling them the same thing.

  6. Mr. Michael Calabrese
    Vice President & Director, Wireless Future Program, New American Foundation

    He said the 700 MHz spectrum is underutilized and wanted it to be transferred for use by commercial interests who could "turn straw into gold." Government proceeds from the sale of the spectrum should be rebated to retailers to reduce the price of converter boxes and digital TVs for anyone who wanted to buy them, not just low-income consumers. The rest of the money should go to businesses providing digital broadband services, and into a digital future trust fund.