Remarks by Assistant Secretary Rohde at the Annual meeting of the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV)

DTV: Getting Over the Hurdles
Las Vegas, NV
April 10, 2000

Remarks by Assistant Secretary Gregory L. Rohde
Annual meeting of Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV)
Las Vegas, Nev.
April 10, 2000

DTV: Getting Over the Hurdles

 



Introduction

Thank you for inviting me to address you today. I am very pleased to be here. Las Vegas is a long way from my home of Bismarck, North Dakota. We have gambling there too, but nothing on this scale. For instance, there are about 8,000 people work between the Venetian hotel, casino, restaurants and shops. Thirty-six of the 53 counties in my home state of North Dakota have fewer people than the number of people who work at the Venetian. All these people on 45 acres of land - about the size of a small parcel of land on a typical North Dakota family farm.

To put the NAB convention into perspective. I am told that there are about 110,000 people coming to the show this year. That is about twice the size of Bismarck - which is North Dakota's second largest city.

Many of you may have heard that Washington is buzzing over the controversy generated by Leonardo DeCaprio's interview of the President for ABC News. Media critics are decrying what they say is a new low in journalism. ABC is now saying it was only a "visit" and not an interview. It appears that Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts have outlived their usefulness to ABC.

Not to be outdone, NBC news called me and asked if they could do an in-depth interview about the Administration's telecommunications policy with their top journalist. Although I was expecting Tim Russert, I was told it would be done by Gweneth Paltrow. I am beginning to like this new trend.
 

Local Television

About 20 years ago, an advertisng executive named Jerry Mander wrote a book entitled Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Mander said that TV had failed to be a true translator of the human experience. As a result of TV, he said, "our direct contact with and our knowledge of the planet has been snapped." But the argument fails to appreciate the knowledge component of the news and information content of local broadcasting.

Like most every other American of my generation, television was a major source of entertainment in my formative years. However, I learned at a very young age that local TV and radio were much more than an entertainment source. I can remember at a very young age having to pack survival kits for the car each winter and for the basement during tornado season in the summer. Growing up on the Great Plains of the Dakotas meant learning how to survive a very harsh climate. Life- threatening severe winter storms were possible 6 to 7 months of the year and a tornado could crash across the prairies on a moment's notice. We wouldn't think about hitting the highways in the winter time without checking the TV for the weather and keeping a radio on at all times. Because of this I understand local broadcasting as a matter of life and death.

North Dakota is also an agricultural state where half the economy is directly dependent upon growing wheat, sunflowers, soybeans, and flax and raising cattle. The livelihood of a farmer or rancher is directly linked to the weather. To farmers like my brother in law who grows wheat and beans and raises cattle outside of Grand Forks, North Dakota today, constant contact with the market and the weather is central to every day of their lives. This is what local broadcasting brings "home" from where I am from. Only the local TV and radio stations provide this critical information.
 

Digital Conversion

The importance of free, over-the-air broadcasting is a constant that transcends technological development. Free, over-the-air local broadcasting will be jut as important in the digital era as it has been in the analog era.

Everyone here knows that you have an enormous task ahead of you to make this country ready for digital TV. By all accounts, you are making phenomenal progress.

• TV station owners alone have spent more than $350 million to make the transition.

• About 62% of the country's TV households can receive a digital signal.

• 84% of commercial TV stations have already filed DTV construction permit applications -- 1,423 stations. Another 42% of public stations -- 160 -- have filed applications and 43 of those have construction permits.

• By the FCC's count, there are 96 stations on the air with full authority and another 23 on the air with experimental or special temporary authority. Of course, NAB counts them all together and uses the combined total.

I'm pleased to see that they aren't all in the top 10 markets, either. Some of the smaller markets are represented, down to markets 105 and 115, better known as Springfield, Massachusetts, and Augusta, Georgia. I will wait with interest to see if my home market in Bismarck, market 152, actually has digital service in the next six years.

The fact that broadcasters in some small markets are starting to make the transition to digital is very encouraging. But in a larger sense, I worry about the timetable that the stations have to follow, because for some small stations, the cost to convert to digital is higher than the value of the station.

That tradition of localism has to be protected through the conversion to digital and beyond. For that reason, NTIA is conducting an inquiry into how local signals can be brought into local areas that are unserved or underserved. We started this process because we wanted to make sure that rural areas had the same opportunities for local-into-local competition as the larger markets will. Many of the larger markets will have that competition from satellites as a result of the Satellite Home Viewer ImprovementAct. Most of the smaller markets in rural areas will not. For that reason, we are asking for your best thinking on how to accomplish this goal of reaching local viewers. The comment date is April 14, with replies due May 15. We also held a roundtable discussion on March 2 attended by broadcasters, cable, satellite and webcasting companies. I encourage your participation. You can find out more about the proceeding at our NTIA website, www.ntia.doc.gov.

End of commercial.

There are other issues facing your industry now. The dispute over a transmission standard is certainly becoming more complex, again, as your engineers take another look at the C-O-F-D-M standard. There is still uncertainty over standards for receivers and for the interface with cable. There are questions how digital TV will require a change in the FCC ownership rules, and how translators will be treated. And we can't forget the continued debates over must-carry and public interest obligations for digital broadcasters.

We know these problems exist, and I don't want to minimize them. At the same time, difficult as it seems at the moment, I don't want to dwell on them because I believe they will be worked out eventually.

I hope that, even as you work through them, pause for a minute to realize what a truly historic time this is, and what a truly historic role you have in the history of television. It will be your job to make certain that the best of the old is carried over into the new. There probably hasn't been an age like this since the broadcasting pioneers and entrepreneurs like William Paley and David Sarnoff started to remake radio into TV.

Who in this room will be the next Paleys and Sarnoffs? A larger, and more intriguing question might be -- Will anyone have the ability to shape a new medium as they shaped broadcasting?
 

Beyond Digital

We are just now starting to see the beginnings of what Internet technologies can do. We haven't begun to see yet what the technologies of digital TV ill be able to produce. TV brought the radio with pictures. Digital TV has the capability to do much more. The truly exciting part is we don't know how much.

We do have some clues, from plans made by some broadcasters already and from the market projections. One consultant found that the long broadcast of the Oscars ceremony "absolutely proved" the need for multicasting and interactive television because there was too much information, even for the 4-hour show. The consultant noted that his wife only recognized two of the singers during the Oscar theme number. They were Ray Charles and Dionne Warwick. The consultant obviously wasn't a country fan, because the other two were Garth Brooks and Faith Hill. It would have been nice to be able to click the remote control to get that additional information, as well as some more clips from the movies and actors under consideration for awards.

We've seen the emergence of groups of broadcasters taking the first steps to maximize the use of the spectrum. iBlast, with the backing of 12 broadcast groups, has announced plans for a broadband network. Geocast is experimenting with a system to send data to computers. The Broadcaster's Digital Cooperative, led by Granite and Paxon, plans a more wide-ranging project, talking about sending material to TV sets, to computers and to handheld wireless devices like the Palm 7. Any of these services may be able to send out data at speeds more than one hundred times faster as a typical dial-up modem. There will undoubtedly be controversy over these datacasting plans, probably from companies that paid a lot of money for spectrum.

We also have to remember that the U.S. is not alone in its pursuit of digital TV. The growing international participation in NAB is the most visible sign here this week that DTV is a world-wide venture. One research report has projected that there will be 80 million digital TV households in Europe by 2005. Forrester Research projected that TV "will be the platform for consumer actvity," and will overtake the Internet as the primary means of doing e-commerce as iDTV - interactive digital TV -- finds greater acceptance.

I'm not going to try today to predict the future of DTV. Predicting can be a dangerous business. For the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, one news service commissioned a batch of articles asking leading figures of the day in business, religion and social activities to look forward to what life will be like in the United States 100 years from then. As you might expect, some were fairly far off the mark.

• The efficiencies of mail delivery would drive postage down to a one-cent stamp.

• Pneumatic tubes would carry messages throughout cities.

• The United States will have 60 states, including some in South America,

• People will live to be 150 years old. That hasn't happened, although some days it sure feels like it.

• Taxes will be at a minimum, there will be free trade around the world and no need for armies.

Many predictions were closer to the mark. Some of the commentators saw the telephone becoming an everyday appliance, to be used for business or for entertainment. A couple of people predicted that railroads, telephone and telegraph service would be owned by the government, and that the money those services earned would help "swell the public treasury" and "lessen the power of large monopolies and vast corporations."

Conclusion

The term "conversion" has its origins in a Greek word which means "to repent" or to "have a new outlook." The conversion to digital for the television industry is creating a whole new perspective for television. While there are some constants - such as the unquestionable value of local news and information and the need for that to be free and accessible to all citizens in our society - the digital era opens up new avenues to serve the needs of local communities.
 

Thank you for listening.