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FCC: digital standard OK

WASHINGTON – The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday adopted a standard for digital television that officially ends months of behind-the-scenes negotiations among the broadcast, computer and manufacturing industries.

The move, which had been anticipated (Daily Variety, Nov. 26), will allow broadcasters to transmit in high-definition television as well as digital TV. In a nod to Hollywood producers, the standard will not include requirements with respect to scanning formats, aspect ratios or lines of resolution.

The creative community, including director Steven Spielberg, were concerned that the proposed standard would result in a TV screen too narrow to fit all movie images.

The modified standard adopted will allow broadcasters to determine, via consumer demand, whether shows should be transmitted using interlace or progressive scan; whether in 480, 720 or 1,080 lines of resolution; and whether at 16:9 or some other aspect ratio.

Issues remaining

Ultimately, broadcasters anticipate one day being able to offer four or five different channels to local viewers. The cost for TV operators to upgrade to digital equipment will run into the millions of dollars, and there are still several remaining issues that the commission needs to hammer out, including the assignment of second channels to broadcasters to convert to digital television.

“We are committed to providing top-quality programming, free of cost, to a universal audience,” said National Assn. of Broadcasters president Edward Fritts. “Once we get a green light, I think America will embrace DTV very quickly … Those who have already seen DTV have been impressed by its service potential and blown away by its quality of light and sound.”

Long gestation

The digital standard was the product of more than eight years of research by a coalition of TV makers and broadcasters, known as the Grand Alliance.

Getting the spectrum for the new channels will be the next battle. The computer industry, which at one point threatened to push for auctions, has agreed not to do so. However, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who takes over as chairman of the Commerce Committee next month, has said he will investigate whether the airwaves should be auctioned. Broadcasters are vehemently opposed to any auction.

In a statement on the adoption of the standard, FCC commissioner Susan Ness said this decision will launch the U.S. into a new broadcast era.

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