Commentary: Hdtv: Don't Blame The Fcc For Tuning Out

The nation's broadcasters are hopping mad. On Jan. 22, in a ruling pushed hard by its incoming chairman, Michael K. Powell, the Federal Communications Commission rejected their wish to have cable companies carry both digital and analog signals from local TV stations. Since 1996, when they were "loaned" tens of billions dollars of spectrum for digital TV, broadcasters have been struggling to develop something people would watch in an era of satellite, DVD, and cable's own digital products. To jump-start the new era, they hoped the government would force cable companies to carry whatever they dished out.

No such luck. The FCC'S decision is a likely harbinger of further hands-off policies. And it tells the broadcasters that their original plan for digital TV--airing movie-quality images known as high-definition television--is going nowhere. The whole field is "a train wreck in slow motion," says David E. Mentley, senior vice-president at Stanford Resources, a display research firm. Now, the broadcasters have to come up with Plan B.

Save your tears: The FCC did the right thing. The effort to create HDTV is perhaps the biggest blunder of 20th century communications policy. The concept dates back to the late 1980s when broadcasters convinced Washington that a massive public-private venture was necessary to enhance American "competitiveness." But by the time the spectrum was awarded to broadcasters, it was clear HDTV wasn't the best use for it. The spectrum could instead be subdivided into multiple digital channels, or used for wireless communications and other applications.

FIGHTING BACK. Because of incessant technical and political squabbling, none of these uses has come to pass, and precious bandwidth is going to waste. Why? To hear the broadcasters tell it, the problems include a lack of good digital TV sets, copyright issues, and most importantly, the intransigence of the evil cable companies, which reach 68% of U.S. homes. But the truth is the broadcasters haven't come up with something people want. Sales of high-end TVs are taking off, thanks to hot satellite services and movies on DVD. But hardly anyone is watching over-the-air digital broadcasts in those few markets where they actually exist. All of this, notes former FCC Chief of Staff John Nakahata, stems from a simple fact: For this industry, there's no cost in doing nothing. "If the broadcasters bought their spectrum at auction, like everyone else, they'd have a plan by now," he says.

By helping nix the digital "must-carry" policy, Powell put the broadcasters on warning. The networks, however, aren't likely to go away quietly. "This fight is far from over," says National Association of Broadcasters President Edward O. Fritts, who vows to go straight to Congress. But Powell will do us all a favor by standing up to an industry too accustomed to getting its way in Washington.

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