WASHINGTON -- The television industry is near agreement on a major issue that has hindered the transition to all-digital TV, several executives said Thursday.
"This process is rapidly moving to a conclusion," Paul Liao, chief technology officer of Matsushita Electric Corp. of America, told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee.
Congress set a 2006 deadline for digital TV's crisper pictures, interactive capabilities and simultaneous programming to reach all American viewers. More efficient than traditional analog technology, digital allows much more data to be transmitted over one channel.
Lawmakers gave broadcasters second television channels for free to switch to digital, with the understanding that existing analog channels eventually would be returned to the government.
The 2006 deadline would be pushed back in places where digital TV signals do not reach 85 percent of the market.
Digital TV development has stalled over a number of issues, including the limited availability of high-definition programming and the pricey equipment needed for viewers to see it.
Cable and satellite service providers also have balked at allocating additional space for digital programming, while local TV stations struggle with the cost of converting to digital signals.
One of the toughest areas, however, is content providers' fears of piracy and the millions of dollars in lost revenue.
Many believe that if content providers are assured that copyright digital broadcasts could not be redistributed illegally, they would increase the amount of digital programming available and hasten digital TV development.
Industry players have been meeting for years to try to resolve all the various issues. On Thursday, they told lawmakers that some consumer electronics, information technology and entertainment industry representatives are close to agreement on at least one -- designing a technology that would provide security for copyright digital material.
The specifications for the technology, which would allow electronic devices to recognize copyright material and block its distribution, still must be resolved. A final agreement is expected by May 17, Liao said.
If Congress then passed legislation codifying the agreement, it would be a major breakthrough for digital TV development, said Peter Chernin, president of News Corp., which owns Fox.
But Lawrence Blanford, chief executive officer of Philips Consumer Electronics North America, complained that decisions were being made by a small, closed group. He also said the emerging technology could harm consumers' "fair use" rights to record or download movies, shows or music for their personal use.
"We do not believe we are anywhere close to a consensus agreement," Blanford said.
Lawmakers urged the players to agree in other areas or risk Congress acting for them. A bill introduced in the Senate would prevent new consumer electronics devices from playing unauthorized files. Though House members prefer to let the private sector find its own solutions, several indicated they are beginning to lose patience.
"We are determined to stick to our schedule," said House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La.