WASHINGTON -- Digital signals may be the future of television, but don't count on an easy trip. The path is filled with the potholes of consumer confusion, expensive equipment and cable incompatibility.
That message emerged Wednesday from a Senate Commerce Committee hearing that looked into the broadcasting and cable industries' transition from analog technology to high-quality digital.
"It hardly qualifies as a success story in the making," said the committee's chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "It is long past time for the American public to hear about the problems they will experience in the rollout of digital TV."
McCain and others doubted broadcasters would complete the switch to digital by 2006 as required by federal regulators.
The problems aren't new, and all the players involved are scrambling to get them fixed.
For instance, pricey new digital TV sets hitting the stores this November are incompatible with digital cable TV boxes or other electronics equipment. That means cable TV customers would get shows in both digital and high-definition on their new digital sets, but the shows' picture quality wouldn't be any better than on their regular sets. A special device that lets the new digital TV sets talk to cable boxes and other consumer electronic equipment is being developed.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said consumers are bound to be terribly confused by all this. "I think we have a major task ahead of us," she said.
Alan McCollough, president of Circuit City Stores Inc., said retailers will make a big push to educate consumers about the new sets, which he expects will sell this fall for between $5,000 and $8,000.
At the same time, broadcasters are having trouble obtaining local permission to erect towers needed to beam digital signals into people's homes.
And problems have cropped up with new television sets receiving broadcasters' digital signals from rooftop and indoor antennas. "Recent over-the-air tests in Washington have found that no digital signal was receivable at over 60 percent of indoor antennas," said Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.
With two-thirds of Americans getting their TV via cable, small-market stations spending millions to go digital worry no one will watch their new signals unless they are distributed by local cable systems.
Big-market TV stations have more leverage and worry less about that. Still, the National Association of Broadcasters wants the Federal Communications Commission to require cable systems to carry digital signals, just as they now carry broadcasters' analog ones.
The FCC will open a proceeding on the matter Thursday. The cable industry opposes government requirements, preferring voluntary agreements.
At the hearing, Joseph Collins, chairman of Time Warner Cable, said no matter which method induces a cable company to carry a digital signal, a subscriber without a digital set and cable box would "merely see a blank screen on the channels occupied by the digital broadcast must-carry signals."
During the transition to digital, local stations will be allowed to have two channels, one for digital, the other for analog.
Most cable systems lack the channel space to carry both digital and analog signals, but upgrades are under way to provide the space.
If the FCC orders a blanket commitment for cable to carry digital broadcast signals, cable systems without open channels would have to drop dozens of cable networks to make room, cable executives say.
"I'm not kidding you, there will be a huge train wreck," said Brian Lamb, chairman of cable network C-SPAN. He predicted C-SPAN would be a major casualty.