LAS VEGAS — A new wrinkle in digital television’s sluggish introduction goes far beyond the current dearth of programming and the high cost of the special TV sets needed to view it.
Consumer activists are up in arms over Hollywood studios’ campaign for standards that would restrict viewers’ rights to record digital programs. Such standards could make HDTV sets sold today obsolete because the sets are not hard-wired to protect copyrighted films and TV programs.
Last week, Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell urged broadcasters, programmers and TV makers to voluntarily take steps to speed the transition from analog to digital television.
The top four networks and cable programmers were asked to provide interactive features or multicasting options with 50 percent of their prime-time schedule by the fall. By next January, Powell wants affiliates of the big four networks in the top 100 markets to broadcast pristine digital signals.
Television makers, meanwhile, are being asked to include digital tuners in their sets on a staggered schedule, with half of the larger sets equipped by Jan. 1, 2004.
The “Powell Plan,” as it’s being called at the National Association of Broadcasters convention, is being widely welcomed, especially by the local stations that missed a deadline to begin broadcasting digital signals.
About 300 stations met the May 1 deadline, but 800 have asked the FCC for extensions.
The digital TV conundrum stems from consumers reluctance to buy expensive HDTV sets while there is a dearth of digital programming. In turn, programmers have been slow to convert to digital because so few viewers can receive the signal.
One thorny issue sidestepped by Powell, however, was copyright protection.
Legislation introduced last month by U.S. Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., would require broadcasters, studios and equipment makers to develop anti-piracy standards within a year.
Such standards could require new sets to scramble or otherwise alter signals to prevent programs from being copied and distributed over the Internet.
Those efforts have spurred the creation of two new groups to advocate for current owners of high-definition television sets and to push for a so-called “Consumer Technology Bill of Rights.”
“The concern — which some of the more critical have called paranoia — in Hollywood is that people will spend endless hours copying programs for their friends,” said Dale Cripps, publisher of HDTV Magazine.
He and others formed an advocacy group this week to educate the public on the benefits of HDTV and lobby Congress to speed the transition to digital television.
Meanwhile, a group of studio personnel and TV manufacturers has been meeting in Los Angeles to develop standards for digital broadcasts, including the establishment of a digital code, or flag, that will tell televisions, computers and recording devices how to handle copyrighted material.
Critics of the effort say one element is missing in the discussion — consumers.
“Consumers have yet to be involved in any of these discussions affecting how they use the equipment they legally purchased,” said Joe Kraus, who last month formed an advocacy group called DigitalConsumer.org.
Kraus, who also co-founded the Web portal Excite, said he is concerned that the standards could rob consumers of their “fair use” rights to record programs for later viewing or make copies of broadcasts or music for playback in another device.
Ultimately, observers say, the digital television transition will be led by consumers, who so far have purchased more than 2 million high-definition televisions but otherwise have not been quick to spend $5,000 or more on one of the new sets.
Jack Breitenbucher, vice president of the Hitachi division that sells digital cameras and production equipment to broadcasters, says sales of cameras and other production equipment to broadcasters have also been painfully slow.
“People are dragging their feet,” he said. “They’re waiting for the consumer to create the demand, and so far the consumer doesn’t care.”