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B’casters up digital date

WASHINGTON — Broadcasters ramped up their timetable for the rollout of digital TV Thursday after be-ing stung by criticism from the consumer electronics industry and the FCC, who accused the major webs of drag-ging their feet when it comes to entering the digital era.

In their second pitch to the Federal Communications Commission in two weeks, broadcasters pledged Thursday that 43% of the country will have a digital TV signal within “18 to 24 months.” The new offer is a significant in-crease over the broadcasters’ last proposal, which promised digital TV for only 27% of the country after two years.

Broadcasters were forced to revise the plan after TV-set makers said the initial proposal was surprisingly timid and did not justify the investment necessary to begin the planned rollout of digital TV sets to stores next year. Criticism from set makers caught the broadcasters off guard because the two industries had established an effective lobbying coalition on digital TV.

But the consumer electronics industry endorsed Thursday’s proposal, saying it was a dramatic improvement over the first plan. “We are encouraged by the broadcasters’ accelerated schedule for DTV rollout,” said Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Assn. prexy Gary Shapiro. “We stand ready to make HDTV a reality, and this an-nouncement brings us one step closer to that goal.”

If broadcasters make good on their pledge, TV-set makers could begin rolling digital home theaters by Christmas of 1998.

In their latest plan broadcasters have pledged to deliver digital TV from at least three stations in seven out of the nation’s top 10 markets. Los Angeles will be one of just two markets with four digital TV stations within two years, according to the revised plan.

In the proposal submitted to the FCC Thursday, broadcasters said KNBC, KABC, KCBS and KTLA will all be transmitting a digital signal within two years. Washington, D.C., will also have four digital stations. But New York, the No. 1 market in the country, will only have two digital stations (WCBS and WNBC) within two years, according to the new plan.

Shortage of towers

Broadcasters blame the slow pace in New York on a shortage of TV towers. Several New York stations are now working on a deal that they hope will create expanded tower capacity at the World Trade Center.

Some critics of the plan noted Thursday that Fox is under-represented in the digital conversion effort, with only three of its nine stations going digital within three years. During an appearance at the National Cable Television Assn.’s annual confab earlier this week, FCC chairman Reed Hundt noted that News Corp. is investing billions of dollars in digital TV service through its ASkyB DBS service, with apparently little interest in converting its earth-bound TV platforms to digital TV.

While FCC sources say they are encouraged by the broadcaster’s latest proposal, they also are approaching it with skepticism. “We are checking out the assertions of fact. This is a healthy conversation between the networks and the public,” Hundt said Thursday.

FCC sources say they are suspicious because just two weeks ago they were told by broadcasters that rolling out digital TV to more than 27% of the country was virtually impossible. But 10 days later, broadcasters came out with a dramatically accelerated schedule. While FCC sources acknowledge that significant progress has been made in the last two weeks, they also say that broadcasters need to make the transition in the major markets in 18 months rather than two years. In addition, the FCC wants to write a rule to set an official deadline for the digital transition in the top markets. Broadcasters want regulators to rely on their word when it comes to keeping their digital schedule.

Broadcasters insisted Thursday that they will make the transition to digital TV faster than they made the switch from black-and-white to color. With their annual confab just two weeks away, broadcasters hope their latest pro-posal will shift the focus back to the FCC, which still has one major rulemaking to issue before digital TV licenses can be issued. “All that now stands between consumers receiving digital and high-definition television soon is ac-tion by the FCC to assign the channels on which it will be delivered,” National Assn. of Broadcasters president Eddie Fritts said.

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