- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2001

Retail sales of digital televisions eclipsed 1 million this year, nearly three years after the first one sold at a San Diego electronics store in 1998.

While the industry considers that a significant milestone, other hurdles are preventing consumers from embracing a technology that promises a picture far better than the analog signal broadcasters beam to televisions now.

Lack of content, the cost of the televisions and the absence of digital programming from local broadcasters on cable-television systems all have stunted digital television's growth, panelists said yesterday at a summit on digital television sponsored by the Consumer Electronics Association.

"I think there has to be more vision and leadership on the part of industry and the government," telecommunications lawyer and former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Richard Wiley said.

The FCC has set a deadline of May 2002 for commercial stations to make the switch from analog to digital television. Noncommercial stations have an additional year to meet the deadline.

No commercial stations have filed a waiver seeking an extension of the deadline, but it is not clear whether they have time to make the conversion to digital. Just 201 of 1,600 commercial stations have made the investment that allows them to send signals digitally. They will spend a combined $16 billion on the transition, National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

Six D.C. stations and five Baltimore stations are sending both analog and digital signals.

While some broadcasters can transmit digital signals now, they have difficulty getting it to consumers because local broadcasters and cable companies have not reached an agreement to put digital signals on cable systems. That is significant because 67 percent of American households subscribe to cable television.

Broadcasters want the FCC to step in and require cable companies to carry digital and analog signals.

Cable operators are legally obligated only to carry analog channels on cable lineups. Cable companies argue carrying both analog and digital channels on their systems would use too much capacity and force them to eliminate some popular networks from their systems.

"With 70 percent of the American public getting their broadcast channels through cable, cable [companies] cannot be allowed to act as the digital gatekeeper," National Association of Broadcasters Television Board Chairman Ben Tucker testified before the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this year.

About 260 million televisions are in U.S. households.

Retailers say the biggest hurdle preventing consumers from buying expensive digital televisions which cost an average of $2,000, according to the Consumer Electronics Association is the lack of programming.

"The main question we get is 'Can I hook it up to my cable system?' " said W. Steve Cannon, vice president and general counsel for Circuit City Stores Inc.

Cable companies argue they will carry digital programming when there are more good shows.

"We have said time and time again, if there is compelling programming out there, we will carry the signal," National Cable and Telecommunications Associations (NCTA) General Counsel Neal Goldberg said.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell last month urged cable companies to reach a speedy agreement with broadcasters on carrying their digital programming. If digital television services aren't introduced to consumers on time, then the government will be forced to impose new regulations on the industry, he said in a speech in Chicago before the NCTA.

Congress may get involved in the debate, said Sen. Conrad Burns, Montana Republican, at the digital-television summit.

Consumers may be embracing digital television slowly, but the industry remains optimistic. Even though it took more than two years to sell 1 million of the high-tech televisions, the industry expects to sell its 2 millionth set early next year.

"I think we're getting this very positive tone building," Consumer Electronics Association Senior Economist Todd Thibodeaux said.

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