[ text version ]

Remarks of
Commissioner Susan Ness
before the
Association of American Public Television Stations
Washington, D.C.
April 14, 1997

(As prepared for delivery)

Digital Television: Opportunities, Realities and Challenges

As a long-time supporter of public broadcasting, I am pleased to join you this morning to talk about the future — the future of free, over-the air terrestrial broadcasting in the digital age.

Public television can be proud of the contribution it has made to the digital future. Over the years, you have played a major role in testing and evaluating DTV systems.

Public broadcasting continues to serve as a digital broadcasting beacon. As you know, PBS has teamed with Harris Corporation to spearhead a nationwide educational initiative and road show that will criss-cross the country, demonstrating the potential of digital broadcast technology.

The Impact of Digital Television
Ordering the conversion from analog to digital broadcasting is one of the most far-reaching decisions in Commission history. It will have a profound impact on the American public, which relies heavily on television for news and information.

For the first time in fifty years, a major change in video broadcast technology will not be backward compatible. In other words, the television sets that consumers buy this year will not be able to display digitally transmitted programs.

And few consumers realize that, in a decade, the analog signals will cease, rendering present television sets incapable of displaying a signal without the aid of a decoder box or a cable, MDS, or DBS hookup.

I predict that the digital revolution will sweep through broadcasting far more rapidly than most people think.

Throughout the DTV proceedings, my focus has been on the public. I believe that Americans will benefit greatly from this advanced technology and the new services. I am so pleased that you in public television share my enthusiasm for the digital future.

Flexible Programming Rules
What has the FCC done to advance the digital agenda? On April 3rd, we adopted two comprehensive orders, unleashing broadcasters to offer digital television service to the public.

In reporting on the Commission's actions authorizing digital, Time Magazine answered the question -- "Will shows get better when digital takes over?" -- by saying, "DREAM ON!"

That's great advice -- DREAM ON!

The digital broadcast standard which the Commission adopted last December opens the door for wide screen format, magnificently clear pictures and CD quality surround-sound. But while technology enables, it is content that educates and entertains.

With HDTV, your audiences will greatly enjoy watching public broadcasting's signature offerings -- the performing arts -- opera, ballet, theater -- and science and nature programming. Just imagine The Three Tenors in HDTV. And won't Nova and Natural Wonders come alive?

Under the service rules we adopted ten days ago, broadcasters will have the ability -- as well as the flexibility -- to digitally transmit more than 19 megabits per second for a variety of purposes: for one or two HDTV programs; for multiple streams of standard DTV quality programming; and for an unlimited assortment of data services. You can mix or match, however and whenever you choose.

Dream On!

So, during prime time, stations can transmit an opera in high definition; or The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, accompanied by even more in-depth information on the topics presented. During other dayparts, multiple programs can be transmitted simultaneously, targeting children, adult education, and the arts.

Finally, the data transmission capabilities of the digital system will permit widespread and inexpensive distribution of tremendous amounts of information that may or may not be connected with the core programming. For example, during a broadcast of "Sesame Street," related interactive childrens' games that reinforce the program lessons could be delivered to computers.

Or additional information on program topics could be delivered for viewers to access on their screens, such as clips about the artists, or data from Internet sites. Also, the broadcast stream can include data to continuously update news, sports, weather, and business information. Software updates also could be transmitted to computers equipped for DTV reception.

The possibilities are endless. During a single program, broadcasters can deliver information equivalent to that contained on dozens of compact disks. The capacity is so great that whole new industries will be created to use this digital delivery system. What possibilities there are for educational programming! And what potential for new revenue streams to help fund your core programming activities!

A dream come true!

As David Brugger has said, "digital television is tailor-made for public broadcasting."

The marketplace will determine whether the television sets of the future become more like computers, computers more like television sets, or different markets continue for different products. But public broadcasting is well positioned to take advantage of any outcome.

Roll-out Schedule
In addition to providing programming flexibility, the Commission in its April 3rd order established a rapid, rigorous -- but reasonable -- roll-out schedule for initiating digital service to the public. For digital broadcasting to succeed, we concluded that simultaneously there had to be: (1) a critical mass of digital stations on the air; (2) attractive digital programming to watch; and (3) television sets in consumers' hands.

We aimed for three stations to be up and running in each of the top ten markets by the 1998 Christmas shopping season -- 18 months from now. That's the time when the majority of big ticket consumer goods, like televisions and computers, are purchased.

Without prompting, many public broadcast stations have stepped forward. KCTS in Seattle went on the air under experimental authority in January, 1997, just weeks after the FCC adopted the digital standard. Other PBS pioneers -- WETA in Washington, WGBH in Boston, WMVS in Milwaukee, and Oregon Public Broadcasting Television -- are well along in their digital conversion plans. Many of these stations are ahead of their commercial colleagues. I congratulate them for leading the digital charge.

On the commercial side, 24 network affiliates in the top ten markets have volunteered to do everything within their power to be on the air in digital by Christmas 1998. These commitments -- which include multiple stations in nine of the top ten markets -- evidence the strong desire of broadcasters to go digital.

Although the 18-month commitments were voluntary, the four major commercial network O & O's and affiliates are required by rule to commence digital broadcasting in the top ten markets within 24 months, and in the top 30 markets within 2 1/2 years, in time for the 1999 Christmas shopping season. Thus, by the end of the 1990's, over 50% of US households will have access to digital broadcasting, if they so desire.

These build-out requirements can be extended for good cause shown, such as tower citing problems, lack of availability of digital equipment, or international border disputes.

Our rules provide that all non-commercial broadcasters will have six years -- and the remaining commercial broadcasters will have five years -- to construct digital stations. We did not adopt a more aggressive roll out schedule for commercial licensees in markets 31 - 200, preferring to let the marketplace, rather than the FCC, dictate the schedule. However, we will be monitoring progress to ensure that the public is being served within a reasonable period of time.

We gave public broadcasting a more relaxed roll-out schedule, not because we believed that all stations would take that amount of time or that early availability of public broadcasting was unimportant. Rather, we recognized that funding for public broadcasting is limited. Indeed, once equipment prices decline, as they undoubtedly will, I would envision many public broadcasting stations beginning digital transmission.

Channel Allotments
Our other April 3rd order allotted a temporary channel to each primary broadcast licensee and permittee, both commercial and non-commercial -- some 2,000 in all. Where feasible, we replaced vacant noncommercial analog channels with new reserved noncommercial digital channels, and committed to consider at the end of the transition additional noncommercial channels for those not replaced today.

Most stations will have digital signals that cover almost all of their existing service areas. In fact, the computer simulation predicts that substantial numbers of stations will cover more area and more people with their digital signals than with their analog signals.

We set a target date of the year 2006 for analog broadcasting to cease. We will be conducting reviews of DTV issues every two years. In later years, when we know more about consumer acceptance and timing, the Commission will establish a firm date to end the transition based upon marketplace realities. It is important for all to be moving ahead with the same expectations.

At the end of the transition period, broadcasters will discontinue analog service. All stations will use either channels 2-46 or 7-51. We have left open the possibility that it may prove more efficient for lower VHF stations to continue to use channels 2-6 in order to better cover their current analog service area. The outcome will depend upon actual experience with using digital signals in the lower VHF range. Although there will be fewer channels at the end, the efficiencies of the new digital standard actually permit more stations to operate using these channels.

The digital era has arrived. Your meeting here today asks the right question: "How can public television position itself to be indispensable in the digital world?"

Public broadcasters have much to contribute to tomorrow's world. The new digital capabilities and the Commission's flexible rules have spawned unfathomed opportunities to enhance educational programming for all. The seeds for funding additional programming can be found within these flexible rules.

With the April 3rd decisions, the work of the FCC is mostly done. We have provided the degree of regulatory certainty needed for you to invest in new equipment and begin digital transmission. Now it is up to you. What you do in the next several years will be the template for decades to come.

I hope that you will in fact, "DREAM ON." I hope that you will use this fabulous new digital technology to deliver more and better educational programming and new services to the public. In doing so, you will lead the way for digital broadcasting, and assure a vibrant future for free, over-the air terrestrial broadcasting.