NEW ORLEANS — Self-confessed TV buff and Federal Communications Commission chair Michael Powell on Tuesday called on Hollywood to keep developing the sort of innovative programming that could help turn the digital TV bust into a boom.

Powell, speaking at the National Cable Show in New Orleans, said ultimately it’s programming that will convince consumers it’s time to make the costly investment in digital TV equipment.

Yet programming often is forgotten in the furious debate over who’s to blame for the stalled advent of the high-def age.

The Washington regulator said Hollywood is on the right path — citing one of his personal favorites, Fox’s critical darling “24.” Powell also is a fan of MTV’s hit series “The Osbournes.”

“You’re seeing all sorts of interesting shows that are experimenting. It’s really neat,” Powell said. “What we don’t know is what kinds of chances the creative community will take in the future.”

Digital conversion has dominated much of the National Show, which runs through tomorrow and is being hosted by the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn.

Other speakers throughout the confab have echoed Powell’s sentiment that it’s naive to think digital TV is just about a better and clearer image. They maintain there’s got to be a sea-change in the types of programming offered.

Screen envy

In addition to regular TV shows, Powell said high-def sports and movies also will steer the consumer to become a “missionary” of a sort and buy digital.

“Every man in this room knows the ‘TV envy’ thing — ‘Yours is 62 inches?’ ” Powell quipped to the breakfast crowd.

When asked later if he owned a 62-inch set, Powell said he doesn’t. “That’s why I have the envy.” (He owns a 36-inch set.)

Powell complimented the cable biz for embracing his recent voluntary digital TV plan, which calls on the cable, broadcast and consumer electronics industries to shoulder their share of the burden. He said broadcasters aren’t in this alone: If cablers don’t carry the new digital signals, no one will be able to watch.

Need more commitment

Last week, NCTA prexy-CEO Robert Sachs officially committed the cable biz to the Powell plan, which calls on the country’s top 10 cable systems to carry up to five digital TV signals by Jan. 1.

“I’m very happy with what they did,” Powell told reporters Tuesday. “I think it’s a big start. Now we need other commitments.”

The four major networks, along with HBO and Showtime, say they will have no problem meeting Powell’s challenge to air half of their fall primetime lineup in high-def, but thus far they have not put that commitment in writing to Powell.

Likewise, the Consumer Electronics Assn. has yet to officially agree to Powell’s call to begin installing digital tuners in TV sets, beginning in January 2003 on a staggered basis.

The digital TV transition also was the subject of Capitol Hill action late Tuesday. The U.S. House of Representatives approved emergency legislation stopping the June 19 auction of broadcast airwaves that eventually will be returned when TV stations go digital.

Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.) said it’s too early for the FCC to hold the auction, since no one really knows when broadcasters actually will begin clearing the valuable spectrum. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it faces an uphill fight.