DTV Primer

Chris Llana, Editor



FCC Delivers Odd DTV Education Speech

March 16, 2006 (updated 3/19)

On March 15, FCC Commissioner Adelstein gave a keynote address before the Consumer Electronics Association's (CEA) Entertainment Technology Policy Summit. The title of the speech was "I Want My DTV: Building a National DTV Consumer Education Campaign."

What was interesting about this speech was that he was asking for the CEA to voluntarily implement the very educational efforts that the CEA had just spent large sums of lobbying money to block.

The FCC has in the past repeatedly proposed mandatory consumer education actions, but gave in to industry opposition. As one of the FCC Commissioners, Adelstein was in a position to assert his will. Instead, the education mandates were dropped and the industry kept doing the same old thing.

At the same industry shindig where Adelstein delivered his pep talk, the CEA honored the heavy-handed Ted Stevens with its Best DTV Leadership Award for his major role in moving the recent DTV transition legislation through Congress (in a form pleasing to the CEA). Stevens is, of course, the Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. The Senate version of the legislation lacked the effective consumer education provisions that the House version contained (and which were stripped out in the conference committee, of which Stevens was a very senior member).

Upon receiving the award, Stevens remarked that ". . . it was a pleasure to work with the electronics industry. . ."

Apparently the pleasure was mutual.

Also honored by the CEA was Rick Chessen, former chair of the FCC Digital Television Task Force and former Association Bureau Chief of the FCC's Media Bureau, now doing good work in the private sector (and perhaps before as well). The CEA gave Chessen The President's Award for Outstanding Contribution. Hmmm, I wonder what contribution that was.

But back to Adelstein's speech.

At the outset, Adelstein follows the politically correct practice of praising his host--CEA's Gary Shapiro. "Your leadership on many important issues has made a big difference at the FCC and on Capitol Hill."

Which unfortunately, is the sad truth. The CEA has exercised the real leadership in the transition to our new digital TV standard. I would have hoped that leadership would have come from our elected leaders and the Federal agency responsible for implementing U.S. public TV policy (vs. big corporate policy).

Then Adelstein offers evidence on how little Americans know about the transition, and how much information needs to be conveyed. He goes on to call for the government and industry to "develop a national education campaign."

Then he switches back to praising the FCC's staff and the industry for the wonderful job they have been doing educating the public. He specifically mentions that the FCC's "hard-working" Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau staff frequently participates in CEA conferences.

Doh. This is an example of consumer education?

He changes gears again and laments the fact that the American public continues to take home analog TVs, thinking they are getting cutting edge technology at bargain-bin prices, when they're really getting antiques.

He continues, saying the FCC is requiring digital tuners in small TV sets by March 1, 2007, admitting that this "was a compromise the FCC worked out with CEA."

The mechanism for reaching that requirement was supposed to have been an open public rulemaking proceeding, instead of a back-room deal with the industry the FCC is supposed to be regulating. Comments from those outside the CEA seemed to have been shunted aside, from my reading of the record. The FCC's own proposal stated that they were seeking comments for establishing an effective date "no later than December 31, 2006," and yet the FCC adopted the March 1, 2007 date proposed by the CEA. Some compromise!

Adelson is an FCC Commissioner. Did I mention that?

He switches back to again "applauding" the efforts of the TV industry at advancing the transition to the U.S. digital TV standard and educating the public, and then adds that there is much more work to do.

He then cites statistics about how little the public knows about the transition, even the consumers who already own a high-definition set, many of whom mistakenly believe they are watching a high-definition picture even when they are in fact seeing NTSC programming.

He cites a study that found only 13 percent of consumers know that analog broadcasts are going to be shut off in less than three years. And yet he was patting everyone on the back for doing such a good job of consumer education (and this is ten years after Congress established a timetable for the ATSC standard to replace the NTSC analog standard!)

He at last gets around to taking a snipe at Congress for giving the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA--part of the Commerce Department) the option of spending up to $5 million to educate the public about the transition and the availability of government subsidies for digital-to-analog converter boxes. (Apparently this is a little turf war between the two agencies; I recently got an e-mail from the FCC advising to check the NTIA web site for info on the converter box subsidy program. And of course there was no such information on the NTIA site.)

Then he goes back to praising the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau for its expertise in DTV education (that's a joke; they either lack the competence or the political will or both), and argues for giving that education responsibility back to the impotent (sorry, my adjective) FCC.

He said he was "pleased" that FCC Chairman Martin had asked Congress for an extra $half-million "to fund an outreach campaign to educate consumers about the transition for Fiscal Year 2007."

"It's just a start," he said.

Well, holy crap, Batman! 2007 is a little late to just be starting! How about a little immediate action?

He goes on (extending the olive branch, going after a cut of the action), encouraging "the two agencies to consider creating an interagency Federal DTV Task Force to develop a unified federal message and approach to inform consumers about the transition deadline and the options consumers have to continue receiving broadcast programming, after Feb. 17th 2009."

How many years will it take to do that?

What have they been doing for the last ten years? And why didn't Adelstein insist on requiring consumer labeling on analog TV when it was proposed by his own FCC a couple of years ago?

Sound like bureaucratic empire building, protecting agency turf, maintaining and increasing FCC staffing and responsibilities (and associated funding).

Looking out for the consumers' interests? Yeah, right.

He again cites the FCC's DTV web site ( as a "huge success." (It actually was lacking in hard news and information, vague, never updated that I could detect, and looking to have been put together by the industry.) That and the fact that only people who already were familiar with the transition would think to visit the site.

But I digress.

As he closes in on the end of his sermon, he offers the following plan (and phony excuses):

"Given the FCC's technical and consumer outreach expertise, we are especially well-suited to spearhead a national consumer education plan and to coordinate the ongoing efforts of television broadcasters, cable operators and programmers, consumer electronics manufacturers and retailers, consumer and public interest groups.

"A national plan could include model public service announcements for broadcasters and cable operators, toll-free information hotlines, direct mail, billboards, print media advertisement, and well-publicized community events.

"Some leaders in Congress had this comprehensive approach in mind, but for various procedural reasons (such as the Byrd rule, which restricts legislating on reconciliation budget bills) those provisions did not make it in the final bill. But the FCC already has the authority to spearhead this national DTV consumer education plan."

This proposal is especially galling and pathetic. He begins by saying that the FCC has the expertise to mount such a program and ends by admitting that the FCC already has the authority to implement effective educational measures. (requiring warning labels, requiring public service announcements -- that's all it would take)

So why haven't they done it?! (a couple of paragraphs down he says "We cannot afford for politics to impede our progress." -- I suppose he means someone else's politics.)

He continues to pander to his CEA audience in the second paragraph when he blames "various procedural reasons" for the educational measues being stripped out of the legislation. The "Byrd rule" says keep non-budgetary provisions out of budget bills, and that was used as the pretense for stripping the education requirements out.

The Byrd Rule is not a law or a Constitutional restriction, but rather a Senate rule that is not absolute. Did Adelstein mention that there is also a "rule" that requires a 3-day waiting period before a conference report can be voted on? No? Well, the bill that contained the DTV transition provisions came out of the conference committee and went right to vote so that the Members of Congress could go home (in December); the 3-day "rule" was waived. The Byrd rule could just as easily have been waived.

I mean, this is Congress we're talking about. But saying there was a "rule" that tied their hands is a better (politically viable) excuse for not telling consumers what's going on than to tell them the educational provisions were forced out as a result of intense industry (TV makers and broadcasters) lobbying.

Work in Washington for 20 years and you learn how things work.

Anyway, Adelstein was talking to the CEA here, so he wasn't going to congratulate them on their effective lobbying effort to quash an effective public education campaign.

He ends by asking CEA to help getting the message across.

After they just mounted a successful lobbying campaign to NOT have to get the message across?

The industry will tell the customer what they need to tell them to get them to buy what they want them to buy when they want them to buy. That's what they're in business for.

It's the government that's supposed to be looking out for the public's best interests. But don't expect them to start now.

In all fairness to Adelstein, at least he's still talking about consumer education. Everyone else has moved on and is ignoring the whole issue.