Set makers say b'casters dawdle

WASHINGTON — Consumer electronics companies complained to the FCC on Wednesday that broadcasters are dragging their heels over digital transition and suggested it might be time for the federal government to consider reclaiming the valuable digital airwaves if television stations are not going to use them.

“Broadcasters should use it or lose it,” wrote Consumer Electronics Assn. topper Gary Shapiro in a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard. Shapiro noted that a survey of broadcasters conducted at last January’s National Assn. of Television Program Executives convention found that a majority supported a delay in the digital roll-out.

Tough transition

Shapiro’s letter is just the latest indication that the United States’ digital TV transition is running aground. Once heralded as a successful nexus of government policy and private industry initiative, broadcasters are beginning to question whether they chose the right digital standard when compared to a rival European digital that is earning raves in Asia and Latin America.

Broadcasters are concerned because they spent the last two years implementing a digital TV standard that appears vastly inferior to what they promised the public. The first generation of digital sets have trouble picking up a signals unless they are connected to an outdoor antenna.

In addition, rival U.S. industries including cablers, movie studios and broadcasters are having trouble reaching their own intra-industry agreements that will allow consumers to buy cable-ready digital TV sets. Studios are concerned that the new digital technology could be exploited by copyright pirates and broadcasters are concerned that cablers will be able to downgrade their digital signals on cable systems.

Setting standards

Although the FCC has been reluctant to insert itself in the intra-industry squabbling, the National Assn. of Broadcasters has suggested that it is time for Kennard to begin setting standards for digital television receivers. One of the key complaints about the current digital system is that the current generation of receivers — which cost more than $3,000 — have trouble picking up an over-the-air signal and they still cannot be hooked up to cable.

In his letter to the chairman, Shapiro lambasted broadcasters for failing to produce quality digital programming, despite his industry’s success in putting digital television sets in stores.

“Even as the broadcast industry offers DTV excuses, our industry offers an increasing array of DTV products,” wrote Shapiro.

“Too bad none of them work,” replied one broadcast industry source.

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