[ Text Version | WordPerfect Version ]

Remarks of Commissioner Susan Ness
Before NAB '98
"The Road to DTV" Panel
Las Vegas, Nevada

April 8, 1998

(as prepared for delivery)

I feel like the producer of a Broadway Show. The play was selected; the actors auditioned; funds raised; the sets built; rehearsals held. It is almost opening night. Boy am I apprehensive! There are a thousand details to attend to. It's a great show...but will the public like it?

You bet.

If the reaction of those attending the Capitol Hill demonstration of true high definition television with the broadcast of the opening season Rangers-White Sox game is any indication.

Or the applause of those viewing movie and sports clips at the ATSC booth on the NAB convention floor. Or the comments of those visiting the Harris-PBS DTV Express Truck.

After a decade of engineering, lawyering, lobbying, and fighting -- the curtain is about to rise on digital television. The scene has shifted from the lawyers and lobbyists to the studio engineers and business planners.

As the panels this morning reflect, the fundamental engineering and regulatory issues are almost behind us.

To be sure, the Commission has yet to complete the ancillary fees rulemaking, or the proceeding on commercial availability of navigation devices, or to begin the digital must-carry proceeding.

But the critical items -- the allotment table, service rules, and standard -- are in place. And at long last, after much soul searching and angst, the networks have chosen their preferred transmission formats and have made their announcements.

Digital television is really going to happen.

Nowhere can the excitement be felt more than on the exhibition floor of this NAB show. It is humming with activity. Manufacturers are out in full force, and stations are visiting the booths, checkbooks in hand.

At last year's convention, there were only a few equipment models to sample. Today, there are multiple vendors with full product lines displaying their wares.

It is dress rehearsal time for DTV. It will take a concerted effort from a wide variety of players -- broadcasters, equipment vendors, cable operators, DBS providers, computer interests and programming gurus -- working in concert -- to successfully launch digital television.

Industry groups must come together to fulfill a shared vision of a smooth transition to digital television. And that vision must be based on what the American consumer wants and needs to be enticed to join the digital revolution.

This morning, as you discuss the role of broadcasters, cable, and even DBS and the Internet in delivering video programming and data services over an enormous virtual pipe to a wide swath of the population, think about each issue from the viewpoint of consumers.

After all, less than one percent of all consumers have ever seen high definition or any other type of digital signal. Yet they will be asked to buy new television sets or decoder boxes, and will have to deal with an array of conflicting claims for various sets and services.

I am concerned that consumers will be confused. Even the most knowledgeable people in industry can't agree on whether 1080 interlace or 720 progressive presents the best high definition picture for the cost, or whether 480-P represents the most cost-effective option.

Will consumers have accurate, understandable information to make their selection among television sets that offer different resolutions?

I congratulate the consumer electronics industry association for its action in January adopting a basic definition to distinguish high definition from standard definition. It is a step in the right direction for consumer awareness.

I worry that consumers will be confused as to what constitutes cable-ready digital television sets. Will the true high definition set that they just bought display the true high definition signal that the broadcaster has just transmitted if the set is hooked up to cable?

The answer had better be yes. I do not wish to see a bottleneck provider, such as cable, be able to defeat the choices that broadcasters and consumers have made -- whatever those choices may be -- by failing to pass through to a digital set the full resolution in the signal.

When consumers are confused or misled, they will stay away in droves, delaying the roll out of digital TV.

Issues for Voluntary Resolution

While the FCC adopted the transmission standard, there are many other standards that industries need to agree upon to effectuate a smooth roll out of DTV. We must still have a universal way to connect equipment such as VCRs to our television sets. We also need an agreed upon way for consumers to be able to use all the ancillary data services broadcasters may choose to provide. I strongly support your efforts to develop voluntary industry standards.

Another issue that we have been trying to address on a voluntary basis is local government approval of digital television towers. We have a pending rulemaking before the Commission based on an NAB petition. Last year, the FCC established a federal-state-local advisory committee, which has been meeting regularly with the NAB.

I believe that progress has been made in resolving some of the misconceptions about television towers. The group is developing information materials to be made available to localities that are reviewing applications for tower construction or modification.

What is clear from these discussions is that broadcasters contemplating a change in their towers should be in touch with their municipal authorities early on -- even a year or two before you plan to launch service.

Begin to familiarize local governments with the issues, now. Make them partners in the effort to roll out digital television. That may save time later on.

The FCC stands ready to help if your local authorities have questions about digital television or radio frequency radiation. In one instance already, a "strike force" was successfully called in to help a local government sort through its questions.

Cable carriage also is another important issue that the FCC will take up shortly. In the first instance, the broadcast and cable industries are in the best position to voluntarily resolve cable carriage issues, working together, for the benefit of the consumer. And I believe the broadcast and cable industries are doing just that.

Soon, at the conclusion of our rulemaking on navigation devices, we will begin to see set-top devices that support cable and DBS appearing in commercial retail outlets across the country.


In conclusion, dress rehearsals have begun. Opening night is not very far away. A new era has begun.

You know your business. You know how best to roll out digital television to capture the largest audience, and I know you are committed to doing so. You have done a remarkable job so far.

The countdown is on; the curtain is about to rise. And I believe that the consumer will be pleased. Go for it!

Thank you.