Q&A: John Abel Looks Backward/Forward on HD Timeline

September 19, 2007
Dr. John D. Abel was second-in-command under Eddie Fritts at the NAB more than 20 years ago when analog HDTV first began to emerge as a broadcast industry priority—a chapter of industry history described in vivid detail in Joel Brinkley’s 1998 book, “Defining Vision: The Battle for the Future of Television.”

Abel’s latest digital enterprise, Lightbulb Communications, is based in Vienna, Va.

Abel spoke recently with HD Notebook.

It’s been more than two decades since NAB first began discussing HDTV, albeit in analog form. What are you thoughts regarding HD’s progression (or lack, thereof) over the years, and were there any unforeseen events along the way?

Abel: On reflection and given how fast technology changes today, and how fast new digital transmission standards are developed and deployed today (in wireless), it took much, much too long to set the DTV standard. It took 10 years from the time the FCC first started an inquiry into setting a standard. That’s not to say that it was not a diligent process, but it took too long.

The standard was not set until 1996 and even then the standard had too many variations and accommodations. The standard that was set was not very crisp, clean or elegant. [But] one of the clear benefits of taking more time to set the standard is we ended up with a digital standard rather than analog, which would have been disastrous.

I predicted at the time that cable, satellite and consumer electronics would drive HDTV, and probably not the broadcasters. I think this prediction turned out to be quite accurate. Cable and satellite had a reason to offer HDTV; broadcasters saw it more as an expense that was difficult to recover. I am surprised broadcasters are not more upset about their OTA digital transmissions and are not more focused and excited about perfecting OTA transmission. At least from my view, they have ceded their digital distribution to cable, satellite and telecom companies. This is very sad.

When digital technology first began to emerge, you seemed to have placed new ventures such as SD multicasting and datacasting—and later on, broadband—on a higher level than HD. Why?

Abel: At the time, these new services would be more likely to generate new revenue for broadcasters, whereas simple HDTV was unlikely to generate new revenue. I think the window of opportunity for these new digital services from broadcasting (and using broadcast spectrum or channels) was open until about the turn of the century. These opportunities are now fading or closed.

Broadcasters today are enamored with being on wireless devices controlled by other spectrum users. The throughput of some of these new digital services on wireless spectrum will far exceed what broadcasters can do. Broadcasters today are great marketers and fairly good programmers, but they are not technologists. They have not seen the technical opportunities within their own spectrum. Wireless companies want more spectrum and broadcasters want less. This makes no sense to me.

What excites you most these days about digital media and where might HDTV fit into the overall picture?

Abel: Once analog TV is turned off in February 2009, I think we will see a very rapid decline in SD video. I predict HD will be pervasive by 2016—which is 30 years after we started discussing HDTV at NAB—and perhaps sooner.

In the context of changes in digital media and with end users of broadcast content, HDTV may simply be irrelevant. Of course, it will be there for most video, but will it really matter for the survival of a broadcaster? As of now, they must do HD to survive, but I think they have to address other aspects of the digital world to survive the long haul with less distress.

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