The only way the digital conversion is going to work is for the FCC to get serious about the must-carry issue. I'm tired of hearing the cable side whine about this. Their cries of limited channel capacity would be more meaningful if not for the pending launch of The Knitting Channel, or some other abstract concept destined for a .01 total audience share.
Until meaningful legislative action occurs, your viewers must endure a confusing and expensive process in order to enjoy the fruits of your digital labor.
Here's a look at the painful process I endured to get me some of that fancy new DTV programming for my own living room:
Sunday, 8:10 a.m.
A big heavy pile of future fish wrap arrives on my front doorstep. Hooray! Look at all these advertisements! This should make my purchase easy. I'll just sift through all the pretty "Reception is simulated" pictures of widescreen color televisions until I find what I need. Oh sorry, "Digital TV requires optional set-top box to receive digital signal."
However, there's no set-top boxes advertised in the inserts. Looks like I'll have to get my answers in person.
Sunday, 1:15 p.m.
The Big Box Electronics Retailer tour requires a level of patience unequaled since my father watched me grind the gears for a few days while learning to drive a stick shift. Take a look at the replies to my three simple questions:
Why should I buy a digital TV?
"In 2006, high definition will be the standard signal÷no more analog." (HD will be the standard? I can only hope.) "You should buy a digital TV for HDTV. It's the law in 2007." (The law? I wish. Nice try on the year, mister.) "Higher clarity÷1080 pixels versus 480 lines of resolution." (Not bad. He came closest to knowing some facts.)
If I do buy one, what will I be able to watch that I couldn't get before?
"Nothing. HDTV is still four years away." (Oh really? Go tell that to Mark Cuban or HBO.) "You'll get ESPN in HD. Other than that, all the channels are the same." (Wrong. ESPN has some HD on tap for mid-2003. I guess he missed the high definition HDNet feed playing on all his showroom sets.)
"If you buy an HD receiver, you can get HBO-HD, Showtime-HD, plus ER and some CBS shows." (Again, a pretty good effort. He must have been referring to an adjacent DMA's network HD broadcasts, because there aren't any HD broadcasts yet in this market÷only a digital one).
What do I need to buy to receive local broadcast digital signals?
"The Samsung SIR T-151 set-top box for $449.99."
"Here's the JVC satellite receiver for $698÷but you have to subscribe to satellite if you buy it."
"There are none. But you can buy an open box Sony HD 100 for $399.97, and then you have to subscribe to DirecTV for $31.99 a month for a full year." (Wrong on "there are none"÷but thanks for trying to sell me a discontinued set-top box that's missing the manual and the remote, kid.)
So there you have it. Not a single retailer could sell me a digital set-top receiver without throwing in a steady stream of half-truths and gross inaccuracies. If your viewer bumped into the one clerk who took a passing interest in presenting the facts, you might have a new set of eyeballs watching your digital signal. I didn't even get into the issues of which TV to buy or antenna installation to employ in order to receive your station's signal; that's another column or two right there. This experience wasn't new to me. It was a repeat performance of what I went through when I purchased my own HDTV-ready monitor. It's also the same sorry routine that my own station's Engineering department went through last month when they needed to buy a DTV receiver for the set in our main lobby.
Oh, the title of this column? Yes, I should discuss how to make money on the digital transition: Go to the television retailers in your market and offer to teach their salespeople the facts. Charge a fee, or do it in exchange for a cash buy on your station. Currently, nine out of 10 digital televisions are being sold without an integrated tuner or set-top box. Your station needs knowledgeable store reps in place to tell the complete digital story to consumers. Who knows? You may want the public (and retailers) to know your side of the story when Washington gets serious about this issue someday.
Note: The writer's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the position of HBI, Inc. Jeffrey Ulrich is a member of the sales team at WHEC, Rochester, NY. He can be reached through his website: www.hidefjeff.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.