Digital switchover brings out the lobbying

The discussion over digital broadcasting has reared its head again with the top guy at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) calling on the industry and the government to move forward with a firm cut-off date for analog television broadcasting. This is nothing new, of course. It’s Gary Shapiro’s job to push for this. After all, he represents those who benefit from the switchover — equipment manufacturers. Despite the evidence he cites, you simply must view everything the guy says through the lens of a lobbyist. An article in MediaDailyNews reports that the CEA likes what it sees from new studies.

He revealed stats showing strong consumer acceptance of digital and high-definition television, citing that more than 17 million digital TV units have been sold since introduction, and that 86 percent of products sold are capable of displaying or receiving a high definition signal.
Shapiro makes a good point, that broadcasters must find a business model that works for them in the digital age, or face obsolescence.

“Recent figures from CEA show the percentage of American homes that rely solely on an [over the air TV] signal is low and shrinking,” he pointed out. “Currently, 87 percent of homes have access to cable or satellite and more pipelines capable of carrying video programming – including fiber optic lines, digital subscriber lines (DSL), telephone lines and power lines – are moving into American homes, jeopardizing the monopoly long enjoyed by broadcasters. The choices are many and great for consumers.”
I don’t dispute anything in that statement. I think broadcasting is at a critical juncture, but lobbying is lobbying. National Association of Broadcasters president Eddie Fritts fired off a letter to Representative Joe Barton in response to statements by Shapiro.

Today, there are 73 million over-the-air television receivers not hooked to cable or satellite. CEA’s cavalier dismissal of these viewers ignores the potential for consumer outrage if millions of people prematurely lose access to this programming. Moreover, disenfranchising huge numbers of Americans from access to local TV should not be based on misleading data from a trade group of offshore receiver manufacturers.

CEA’s letter appears clearly designed to shift attention from its relentless effort to delay reasonable “DTV tuner mandate” rules established by the FCC. We’re puzzled why TV set manufacturers continue resisting phased-in tuner mandate rules, given that the DTV transition will allow these companies to share among themselves the greatest transference of wealth in the history of consumer electronics.

It’s common knowledge that each sale of an analog TV set only elongates the DTV transition. Yet astonishingly, CEA admits that its member companies intend to sell nearly 59 million analog television sets between 2004 and 2008.

The CEA is pressing Congress for action, because it knows broadcasters won’t spend the millions required to go entirely digital without a little prodding. The industry is in deep financial trouble already and simply doesn’t have the cash.

That said, the analog bandwidth currently assigned to broadcasters has significant value in other areas, and if entrepreneurs could get their hands on it, we’d all be amazed. Something needs to give.

I remember being shocked when studying the Eastern North Carolina U.S. Census tapes in 1990 that 10% of homes in the region didn’t have a telephone. It was as high as 14% in some rural counties. Everybody, however, had a television set. The government and the industry needs to find a way to serve these people if we really want a digital future.

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