Last week's lead story (HD Notebook, July 6, 2005) spurred some spirited feedback from readers. The news item pointed out the wide disparity between the OTA numbers used by Consumers Union and the Government Accountability Office, and endorsed by NAB (up to 80 million sets) and a recent CEA survey that resulted in OTA numbers not much more than 30 million. Here are a couple of letters, printed with permission of the authors:
~~ Dear Editor:
I strongly disagree with the premise behind the quote from CEA's Michael Petricone, who seems to believe (understandably, I suppose, considering he is a senior factotum at an organization dedicated to sales of new widgets) that a device bought for a first purpose but subsequently used for a second purpose ceases to be a device for the first purpose after three months.
I rather doubt that the average consumer views a fully functional TV set presently used more as a game machine as no longer a TV. Nor is that average consumer likely to view sanguinely an announcement that an additional purchase, plus a considerable amount of fiddling and learning, will be required even to make the additional purchase operational with the otherwise perfectly good TV.
(Incidentally, if a TV is connected through a VCR to an OTA antenna, is the TV counted as a video player or a TV if the superior tuner in the VCR is used instead of the tuner in the TV to view OTA programming?)
I also find jarring, an assumption widely repeated in the pages of TV Technology that set-top OTA receiver/converters capable of capturing ATSC for receiver-less HD "monitors" and of degrading digital HD to feed analog TVs will be sold widely for $50 within two years. Only a handful of big box retailers seem to offer any OTA receivers at all, and prices remain in the $250 and up range. The last few $150 STBs they used to have are gone. Will prices drop to 20 percent of current levels at a moment that can be credibly identified?
Also, please note that the interface between the receiver-less HD 'monitors' and the hypothetical $50 OTA receivers is a fancy cable that has been selling at retail for $100. Not $5, not like anything throwing around in your junk bin, and not appropriate for home fabrication from Radio Shack components. In fact, not even universal.
Meanwhile, retailers continue to sell analog TVs without caveats, and the fate of true portable TVs--whether shirt pocket, RV, or other--appears to be unworthy of discussion. If the Great Unwashed ever notice that this is going on, there may be a backlash.
"Bless us, every one."
David R. Bright
Glen Burnie, Maryland
Editor's Note: Neither TV Technology magazine nor HD Notebook assumes that OTA receiver/converters "will be sold widely for $50 within two years."
First, I think that even the CU/CFA and GAO survey fell short of the real number of consumers that rely on OTA reception. I took the GAO survey and the questions were not complete enough to address the issue correctly. They left too many holes for OTA viewers to fall through. As for the CU/CFA survey, I have reviewed the questions. They were more comprehensive than the GAO survey but still did not address all the issues.
Second, I question any results from data that an organization gathers that will not release its methodology, as is the case with the CEA survey. Any survey as complete as it may be, will never address all the issues. I was an OTA user exclusively until last year. Before switching, there was almost a point of shame in admitting to not having cable or satellite service. People were in disbelief when I told them.
Television ads were constantly reminding me of programming I was missing by using a roof antenna. Cable and satellite providers sent me mountains of junk mail to add to my guilt. My children felt they were living in a third-world country. They had to rely on the kindness of their friends to "get their MTV." These attitudes may sound silly but are pervasive in the OTA community of users.
I agree completely with the CU/CFA conclusions: "Congress should place the number of TV sets that will stop functioning after analog TV is shut off at no less than 70 million and plan accordingly."
Using the GAO estimate of $50 per tuner to convert these sets for DTV reception, the report states, "the direct government-imposed costs on consumers who seek to preserve the usefulness of these sets would be $3.5 billion or more." It warns, "Relying on lower estimates could lead members of Congress to understate the number of households affected, the total costs to consumers, and the level of the compensation necessary to hold consumers harmless from the congressionally mandated transition to digital television."
One thing strikes me as true in this conclusion and has bothered me from day one. We, the taxpaying public and the consumers, are going to pay dearly for this transition that was mandated by Congress. Not all consumers will by 'harmed' by this mandate, but for those low income consumers that are, the government should be obligated to supply assistance.
I feel a fundamental issue is never discussed or questioned. I feel we should never be denied access to free off-air signals in any format. By changing formats from NTSC to ATSC, we will disconnect some viewers from their free access to OTA broadcast reception. At first it may be 20 percent to 40 percent, depending on the survey numbers you believe. Most will retool or purchase new TV's. Eventually, 1 percent to 5 percent may be left without television reception. What percentage number is acceptable?
As technology progresses, the idea of free television could disappear completely. OTA broadcasts will be gathered by pay-to-watch services such as cable, satellite, cell phone, PDA, and local area networks. OTA ATSC broadcasters already want to charge for some of their services.
How long will it be before OTA broadcasters cannot make enough revenue from free distribution and shut down or encrypt their signals? This would allow them to charging advertisers less for each second of air time and recouping their loss by charging a fee to the viewer. This would also allow them to justify changes in their programming content, like pay services have enjoyed in the past. It's akin to Radio Free Europe charging a fee for its broadcasts.
To me, the trend is disturbing. If for no other reason, I want free OTA to exist so I have something to watch when some drunk hits a telephone pole and knocks out my cable connection, or my satellite reception goes south.
Loma Linda, California
Editor's Note: Legislation pending in Congress would allow subsidizing the cost of converter boxes for qualifying low income U.S. households. Also, the CEA forwarded upon request to HD Handbook the methodology for its OTA survey. It is featured in this edition.