In the Spotlight: Gary Shapiro
Dealerscope: Another of the seminal events in our industry that you played a part in was the transition from analog to digital TV. Did you think it would go as smoothly as it did?
Shapiro: I was less concerned than almost anyone involved. I was called into a congressman’s office and told we had to support the proposal to give every consumer a coupon. CEA did not support that proposal; we felt it was a wasted billion dollars. We never ask the government for money; that’s one of our core positions. My position was that it’s just television. If your TV doesn’t work because you haven’t bought one of these cheap boxes, you can turn on the radio, open a newspaper, do something else; the world’s not going to end. I was called into the office of the guy who’s now the head of the Federal Trade Commission, seven years ago, and he was concerned about the transition. I said to him that with all respect, you have a much bigger problem. This is just TV. If someone doesn’t get service for a day or two, they figure it out. The issue is really going to be that millions of Americans are going to lose their homes because they’re signing mortgage documents they do not understand. Why not focus on that? A home is much more important than a television. And he said, you’re right. This was in 2005, before the mortgage crisis.
What we did do that was very important, I think, is we had a whole DTV strategy which the Association adopted and which I pushed, working with other industries focusing on a common message, getting the facts out to the public, reassuring them we had to be very delicate – it was a dance not to hurt existing analog sales and promote digital television sales. We wanted the industry to speak with common words and a common theme. Then I reached out to my colleagues in the broadcasting and cable industries and, as the transition was a couple of years out, I sat down with them and said guys, we’re going to hang separately or hang together, so let’s work together and come up with a common campaign to the public about what this is and how it’s going to happen. If it screws up, it’s all our heads that are on the line. We agreed on common messaging and a common campaign, and got in all these other interest groups. While we stayed away from the government money part of it, we all had the same reassuring language we spoke to the public. And I’ve yet to hear any complaints about the transition. It was totally seamless. I’m so proud of the HDTV transition that when I die, I want a 16:9 aspect-ratio tombstone.
Our strategy was that we laid out everything. We had an awards program; we had conferences; we got different industries together; we had retailer education and demos all around at Circuit City, Best Buy and independent dealers; and did so many different things. And it worked. It was the best example of a government–industry partnership—it was absolutely terrific.
There were other issues. A lot of people didn’t think HDTV was important; they thought only digital was important. And there were those of us that were passionate about HD being the best standard for the U.S., and fought for that all the way against companies who thought 480p was good enough. The biggest thing we were wrong about was we thought that over-the-air broadcasting would be the major driver of digital TV sales, and it turned out to be that DVD was, even though DVD was not HD at the time.
Now, people like John Taylor, Peter Fannon and David Arland, who were involved then, are involved in the transition to Ultra HD. We have such great expertise in our room. Ultra HD is a big deal, and will be a great product. We’ve succeeded already in getting the industry to agree upon a name. That took three or four years with HD; for Ultra HD, it took six months.