October 18, 2002
Cable and satellite television systems deliver each and every channel ordered by a subscriber. That's one good reason why, according to the FCC, 86.42% of U.S. television households subscribed to a multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) as of June 2001.
The 2002 figures won't be published until next January, but despite an increase in television households, there will almost certainly also be an increase in the proportion subscribing to an MVPD. The percentage has grown by more than 4% every year since 1997. It grew before then too, but that's the earliest year in the latest FCC video-competition report. A single dollar invested at 4% compounded annually would be worth more than $2 after 18 years. That's the sort of thing students were taught back in 1962, when savings banks offered about 3% interest compounded annually. Something else happened in 1962. Congress passed the All-Channel Receiver Act. UHF TV stations were failing because viewers couldn't receive their signals, so Congress mandated UHF tuning in TV sets. When that didn't do the trick, the FCC required "comparable" VHF and UHF tuning, insisted that a UHF antenna (loop) be supplied with a set if a VHF antenna ("rabbit ears") was, and, finally, ordered improved performance of UHF tuners.
The government wanted to ensure a level playing field. Every broadcast television station (in any given area) was to be about as receivable as any other. It worked. The number of U.S. UHF stations grew from 75 in 1960 (half the number that had originally gone on the air) to 1,006 at the end of this June, outnumbering VHF by 300.
Now there's DTV. In April, FCC Chairman Michael Powell offered what he called a proposal to speed the transition to DTV. It treated cable, satellite, and terrestrial broadcast networks equally÷as indeed they are on cable and in many satellite markets, where one can as easily tune in ABC as HBO. But it didn't treat broadcasters the same as cable and satellite systems, and it didn't treat broadcast television receivers the same as cable set-top boxes.
Broadcasters were asked to pass through their networks' digital programming; cable and satellite systems offering hundreds of channels were asked merely to carry five that are different from traditional TV. HDTV is an option; so is interactivity or multicasting.
Manufacturers of cable boxes were asked simply to meet demand for their HDTV products. Manufacturers of broadcast receivers, however, were saddled with adding broadcast DTV reception to virtually every TV set they sell, something that's no longer a mere proposal but is now an FCC mandate.
Unfortunately, 2002 is not the same as 1962. There's the FCC's 86.42% of U.S. television households subscribing to cable or satellite in June of last year. Compounded at 4%, that percentage will exceed 97% in 2004, the first year of the broadcast DTV reception mandate. And broadcast DTV receivers are useless for cable- or satellite-delivered programming.
As for broadcast DTV, the FCC refuses to provide minimum receiver performance standards (as it did for UHF) and has mandated neither cable carriage of a broadcaster's full DTV bit stream nor satellite carriage of any of it, leaving consumers at the mercy of off-air DTV receivers. With today's best DTV receivers, not all DTV broadcasters in a market are received at all sites. With the digital "cliff effect," less-than-perfect reception can be equivalent to no reception at all.
It seems unlikely that manufacturers will strive to include the finest possible DTV-reception circuitry in their products. None have included dual stream audio decoding capability, which is necessary for DTV commentary and dialogue channels and important for multilingual and descriptive audio. Manufacturers could also simply drop NTSC tuners, eliminating the DTV reception requirement as well as a 5% import tariff.
That wouldn't affect satellite or cable subscribers using set-top boxes with audio and video outputs. And popular broadcast networks would probably be carried on cable and satellite no matter what.
Niche programming multicast by broadcasters won't be helped much by a DTV reception mandate lacking minimum performance standards nor "primary-video" must-carry. Caveat broadcastor.
Mark Schubin is an engineering consultant with a diverse range of clients, from the Metropolitan Opera to Sesame Workshop.