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Opening Remarks
FCC Commissioner Susan Ness
Before the
NAB Convention
"Operation Digital" Panel
Las Vegas, Nevada

April 18, 1999

(As prepared for delivery)


Conversion from analog to digital television is one of the most complex but critical undertakings this industry has experienced.

It is like an intricate mosaic -- magnificent, but hard to decipher at first. But as each new tile is laid, the design takes shape and substance.

But anyone who doubts the wisdom of completing this mosaic need only ponder for a moment how breathtakingly swift digital services and the Internet have penetrated our lives.

Just think, five years ago:

Our children thrive in a digital world. So, too, must free, over-the-air broadcasting.

But creating a mosaic takes time. Given the intricacy of the task at hand, we naturally start slowly and gather speed as each tile is laid.

Periodic Assessment

As we proceed on the conversion from analog to digital, it is helpful to assess our progress. Let us take a step back from the mosaic and examine our work to date.

Since last year's NAB convention, we've made a great deal of progress:

In our assessment today, I'd like to focus on:

1. What's working; and
2. Where improvement is needed.

What's Working

Significant progress has been made on the buildout of digital television systems.

I would also like to single out some of those broadcasters in mid- to small-sized markets who have gone on the air way ahead of schedule in places like Madison, Wisconsin, Hilo and Honolulu, Hawaii, and Mansfield, Ohio.

It is also exciting to see a number of noncommercial stations among the pioneers. WETA, our noncommercial station in Washington, is transmitting its digital signal 24 hours a day -- and it knows every viewer on a first-name basis! I'm also pleased to note that it is exchanging digital programming with its pioneering commercial counterparts.

Tower Siting

I would also like to report that municipal tower siting and zoning issues in the top 30 markets appear to be confined to Denver and San Francisco. Outside of these markets, however, it is too soon to tell whether or where there will be tower siting issues with local authorities.

As you may know, we set up an ad hoc FCC task force that is as close as a phone call away. That's a phone call to my office! We have helped local authorities understand the conversion to DTV and provided a level of comfort about topics like FAA rules and RF emissions.

My compliments to all of you who have made the investment in time, money, skill and vision to reach this point. As a former lender to television stations, I know this is neither easy nor cheap, but it is an investment that will allow your stations to participate fully in a more competitive future.

Cable and DBS

How are other parts of the digital television system doing? Cable systems are being upgraded to 100% digital or a hybrid analog and digital combination. DBS, of course, has been digital from its inception.

So far, the development of the necessary infrastructure for a "trans-industry" transmission path is moving ahead.

Receivers and Decoders

Another thing that's moving ahead is the introduction of digital receivers that grab the attention of consumers. A year ago we were not able to walk into any consumer electronics stores to see DTV but today, many stores are showing them. And suggested retail prices are coming down dramatically.

All of the leading manufacturers have introduced DTV receiver models of various sizes and prices. On this floor and at the Consumer Electronics Show, we were able to see other innovative products that should help heighten interest in DTV -- things like TiVo or Replay TV, and digital set top boxes with an array of features.

Second generation sets -- due out this fall -- should have more features and functionality than the pioneering sets.

Finally, DTV chipsets are being introduced that enable computer users to add a digital television feature to their PC or other computing device.

What Needs Improvement

At this point in our periodic review, I have two areas of concern: compatibility among the various pieces of this digital television system; and programming, or the lack thereof.


First, I want to acknowledge that significant industry efforts have been made to solve some of the interface issues. Last winter, the cable and consumer electronics industries reached an agreement on the 1394 digital connection -- but no one should be lured into thinking that the connection problem is completely solved.

The difficult issue of how programming will be protected against unauthorized copies remains open. It is urgent that this copy protection problem be resolved in time to have connection devices available for the 1999 holiday selling season.

We continue to expect the consumer electronics, cable, and television programming industry to work together to develop a mutually acceptable approach to copy protection. I know Chairman Kennard cares very much about this issue.

The Commission staff will convene technical roundtables on May 20 to focus on issues of compatibility, copy protection, and set top box functionality.

It is my preference that industry develop mutual solutions to other compatibility issues -- and I believe significant progress is being made -- for example, on defining digital cable ready sets.

More immediately, if there is to be consumer choice, it is important that cable subscribers are afforded the opportunity to receive broadcast signals in the format in which they are transmitted.

And all of the features of a digital set should work, including new digital services such as program guides.

For this periodic review, I think it is enough to reiterate these goals and to point out that while some progress has been made, more work needs to be done.


The second area of concern is the slow start to digital program development. The construction deadlines for broadcast stations will not mean much without more programming than has been announced so far. The dearth of programming is a real problem.

It's true we do not have a General Sarnoff solving this DTV "chicken and egg" problem, but surely there are stakeholders who can see that compelling programming is essential. I've been told that NBC developed "Bonanza" as a showcase for color television -- and the popularity of the show certainly helped sell color television sets!

Again, this is an area where our best solutions will be industry-based solutions. I look to the broadcast networks to lead the way in developing programming that will showcase digital television -- whether High Definition or "enhanced definition" or whatever can be used to demonstrate to consumers the benefits of digital television.

I applaud public broadcasting for boldly embracing the new technology with innovative products. Commercial television can do the same.

The fall season is just five short months away. On this part of our periodic review, I think we need immediate improvement.

The CBS football games, the ABC movies, and wonderful PBS programs on Frank Lloyd Wright and Van Gogh are great, and I don't want to downplay their significance. But for the Fall of 1999, we need to hear more plans for digital programs -- a critical mass of programs that will excite viewers.

Compelling programming will also help answer cable operators who say they stand ready to carry broadcast stations "if there's programming their subscribers want." Surely, this is an offer broadcasters can't refuse!

I know broadcasters are extremely concerned about their ability to gain cable carriage. The Commission is expected to act on this and other related matters later this year.


A successful digital deployment can be measured in terms of whether consumers understand and embrace digital television. More directly, it will be whether consumers are willing to put down their hard-earned dollars for digital receivers and set top boxes.

That is going to require compelling programming -- the best that the industry has to offer -- and enough of it to attract consumers and advertisers.

It will also take time -- time to solve the compatibility issues. Time to produce captivating programming and must-have services. That time is now.

We have seen a revolution of epic proportions in the growth of digital and the Internet. The same can be true of digital television if we all work together to resolve these issues.

The defining tiles of the mosaic have been laid. Let all of the industries redouble their efforts to complete this tableau for the benefit of the American public and the world.

Thank you.