Lynn Claudy started at NAB in 1988, when the current DTV system was born. He's about to see it reach fruition.
The final stage of the DTV transition will require unprecedented orchestration within the broadcast community, and practical timely guidance from those who regulate it.
As senior vice president of science and technology at NAB, Claudy walks the realm between the two, helping regulators understand what's possible, and broadcasters to know what's required of them.
He recently enlightened Television Broadcast Editor-in-Chief Deborah D.
McAdams about the forces affecting the final phase of the nation's transition to digital television.
: What is currently the biggest technological obstacle in broadcasting, and how will it evolve over the next year? CLAUDY
: The biggest obstacle for broadcasters involves those 600 or more stations that are changing channels between now and Feb. 17, 2009, which is not that far away.
It's an especially big issue for them, because the flexibility for what they can do and how they can get to those final channels by that date is really dependent on the FCC rules being put out. The FCC came out with the Third Periodic Review of Digital Television in May and got comments in the summer, and but have not released final rules. (Editor's Note: The rules were release after publication, on New Year's Eve. See FCC Releases Final DTV Transition Rules
We put in our comments on a whole laundry list... for broadcasters to be able to turn off analog early; to be on a temporary digital channel while the guy who needs to move so you can move can get his act together; Canadian and Mexican coordination; and a lot of those types of issues.
The FCC really needs to get those rules out so broadcasters can make their final moves; and it involves a lot of heavy lifting.
Literally. Those antennas weigh a lot.
: Is idea of flash-cutting more complicated than it sounds? CLAUDY
: It is, and it depends on the station. There are a lot of different stories out there, and a lot of creativity and innovation, too. As long as you know the rules and how far can they be bent to keep service on the air...
There is a great deal of waiting for the FCC rules.
This really needs to happen as soon as possible. TVB
: There seems to be a new sense now at the FCC that the final transition is fairly complicated for broadcasters.
: There's a growing awareness. It doesn't look so bad when you write it on paper, or it doesn't look so big when you look way up in the sky and you say, "well, that antenna's not so big," but the more real this is made to the government regulators, the more they start to really understand that this is heavy steel; this is weather in the northern part of the country [in February].
These are not difficult issues to solve, but when they are against a rigid timeline, there's only so much that human capability can achieve. TVB
: How many of those stations are ready to shut off early?CLAUDY
: I don;t know. It's something they want to do, but towards the end of the transition, if that's what's necessary to get on their final channels, some will do that, or reduce power.
As Feb. 17 draws near, stations will be willing to sacrifice more of the analog audience in favor of the digital audience, because the economic power of the audience is going to shift.TVB
: Update us on the NAB's technology advocacy program.CLAUDY
: We've put out a number of RFPs, on radio and television topics, and we are actively working on a number of projects that are in various stages. TVB
: What's one example? CLAUDY
: We're interested in seeing how fast the commercialization of smart antennas can take place, something that kind of came out of the NTIA process for the converter boxes. TVB
: What's the advantage of a smart antenna over a conventional one? CLAUDY
: Absolutely none, but the difference in consumer experience is huge.
In the '50s, people were not averse to have a big old directional antenna on the roof, and a rotator. If you were watching ABC and you wanted to watch CBS, you had to turn that thing and wait for 30 seconds to watch that channel.
What kind of fool does that these days in the channel-surfing environment?
The smart antenna technology does that same operation. It manipulates a directional antenna electronically and stores all those channel positions, so that you can channel surf among all local channels and never have to manipulate an antenna.TVB
: Do you think people will bother with antennas again? CLAUDY
: We are quite hopeful. You know, digital's the great opportunity for over-the-air broadcasting to be at technical parity with any other medium.
It's a great opportunity for people. If you don't need ESPN, if you don't need Nickelodeon, then, it's free. TVB
: So, there could be a free television renaissance? CLAUDY
: Yeah. I think that's what a lot of the people in the industry see. Now whether that percolates to the general population is an open question.
Even in wired households, having the over-the-air option is a good thing because cable and satellite are single-point failures for all the channels. Satellite has rain fade; cable goes out when people are digging for utilities. Broadcasting's always there.
In an emergency or a weather-related crisis, that's the content you want and you don't want it disrupted.
It just makes good sense, like having a flashlight in the house.
: What do you see as the most disruptive technologies in the television industry and why? CLAUDY
: Bounce back that clich'consumers want whatever they want, whenever they want, on whatever device they have.
We know we have the content they want, so hey, we're safe there.
The "when" is really the DVR. The emergence of the DVR has brought time-independence to consumers.
That was a disruptive technology when it came out. People were scared to death it was going to destroy the advertising model; it didn't.
The real disruptive stuff is wherever you are on whatever device you have. Location independence is hugely important and device independence is maybe even more disruptive, because both are not about dividing the audience pie differently.
They're about making a bigger pie. It's about getting television to an audience segment at a time and place where they don't get it now, so that's about audience growth.
Audience growth is not a concept that television broadcasters talk much about because it's a mature industry.
Getting content to people on nontraditional devices at nontraditional locations is a real revolutionary, audience-growth kind of paradigm.
: How soon will we see a commercial implementation of mobile broadcasting? CLAUDY
: Well, the Gantt charts say services will be announced in the first quarter of 2009. That is the goal.
A lot of hard decisions have to be made and a lot of work has to be done, but there may be just a window of opportunity for broadcasters to participate in that mobile market, as other types of mobile services get a strong foothold.
So, it may be that if it isn't possible to do that within a given timeframe, it's not worth attempting.
There's a great esprit de corps and hurry-up attitude.
: Do unlicensed devices compromise that effort? CLAUDY
: Sure, unlisenced devices compromise everything, but especially reception on other devices likely to be in close proximity, meaning measured in inches instead of tens of yards.
That would be quite inhibiting to a reliable service.
The Open Mobile Video Coalition sent a letter to [FCC Chairman Kevin Martin] cautioning that a mobile service is especially vulnerable if white space devices are not regulated in some appropriate way. TVB
: Would you advocate for them to be licensed? CLAUDY
: We have.
: Are you OK with fixed unlicensed devices that are tentatively approved? CLAUDY
: Our position has been to not just use sensing as the only locating technology, but also geolocation, and having rules for inhibiting operations on co-channels and adjacent channels.
In addition, if you license it, you have a little more confidence about the interference potential and how to control it.
But portable unlicensed devices are a prescription for danger. TVB
: You talk about locational independence leading to audience growth, but what does that matter if it can't be measured? How important is that, and who's in charge of developing the audience measurement technology? CLAUDY
: It is hugely important. I think the audience measurement people, Nielsen and the supporting industry, are very interested in evolving their technology and they have smart people working on it.
It is an underappreciated problem for how difficult it is to do that, especially with personal devices.
: Are you aware of D-to-A converter boxes available for retail? CLAUDY
: Well, they're not in the stores yet because the NTIA coupon program won't kick in 'til next year. But there is concern if they make coupons available in January and there's not a tremendous stock of converter boxes. The coupons have a three-month lifetime.
I would be shocked if they were not available from some major retailers and from the Internet suppliers in January. It's available technology, and there are a lot of Chinese plants working 24/7 to get a piece of this.
: Television has been plug-and-play for 50 years. Is there an expectation that suddenly everyone's going to understand they'll need a supplemental device for their television set? CLAUDY
: I think it'll be an issue for some, there's no question. The experience in other countries, in the U.K. and other places that have made the shift, there is a faction in the community that is just not going to be real thrilled or aware or capable.
So as much as possible, you want to activate the peer groups those people interact with. A message from the government or from the NAB just isn't going to work for them. There has to be interpersonal communications with people they know and trust and deal with on a daily basis.TVB
: You're an audio guy. Does audio takes a back seat to video in broadcasting CLAUDY
: I think it's taken for granted, but I don't think it takes back seat.
: I still see huge lip-sync problems with digital over-the-air signals. Aren't there relatively simple fixes for that? CLAUDY
: Everything in digital involves some kind of delay, and a delay for the video side may or may not be different from the delay in the audio side, so that when something comes out of that particular box, you need to regain the time alignment, you need to pay attention to do that, so the next part of the chain gets the signals at the same time.
At this point, it's really more of an attention-to-detail kind of activity. As people start to depend on their digital signal as their lifeblood, rather than a hobby, it will be resolved.
: Do you think there's a consumer opportunity for broadcasters to use 5.1? CLAUDY
: I think it's a better experience.
When I first got a job out of school, it was in the waning days of quadraphonic sound, and everyone thought that was going to revolutionize the high-fidelity experience, but it didn't because quadraphonic sound was a terrible idea.
It was four equal channels, and the only way four equal channels could impact you is if you put the living room sofa in the middle of the room.
Quadraphonic sound failed because the American public would not reorient their living room furniture.
That's really not the case with surround sound, where the sound is meant to envelop you, and you don't have to rearrange the furniture.
The opportunities there are a lot better. When it's done right, it's pretty compelling. When stuff blows up, it goes up all around you.
: How does vendor consolidation affect broadcasters? CLAUDY
: I think consolidation is such a fact of life now. In all industries, it's a survival tactic. The broadcast industry is not that big anyway.
It's not a mass market. It's not surprising that consolidation would be necessary to sustain those businesses in the current economic climate.
I don't think broadcasters have been left without equipment choices that they would otherwise have.
It's always nice to have multiple vendors, but just like other industries, consolidation is keeping the industry afloat.
: Avid's executives spoke recently about rushing things to market; other companies are known for not being able to fill orders on time. Has that always been an issue for this industry? CLAUDY
: I don't think it always has. I think it's a modern trend, though, in the digital equipment marketplace. You can always fix a problem with a firmware upgrade.
You see that in the computer space. The software industry is notorious for it. And it's true, it's fairly cheap to upgrade or fix something after the fact, even though you've sold lots of them.
And in a competitive marketplace, you need to get your product out there.
It?s a technique a lot of industries are using.
I'm not aware there's a quality control problem, though. It just means beta products are out there, even when you think they're not beta.
You can't exhaustively test digital systems, reasonably. You have to exercise them over time. TVB
: The whole digital transmission system on Feb. 17, 2009 will be a big beta test. CLAUDY
: That will be. Where that doesn't work is with things like set-top boxes. If they don't work, they get thrown out. They don't get firmware updated. Those are purpose-built products. TVB
: What will happen to the equipment market post Feb. 17, 2009. Will broadcasters just want to broadcast for a while? Will it level off? CLAUDY
: I think the shift from analog to digital is also a shift to how equipment is procured, because once you're on a digital platform, you're always facing upgrades. In analog, you'd go from one stage to another huge incremental stage, only once in a while.
So, the last point of lack of changes is the day you turn off the analog transmitter. It will change the purchasing houses of broadcast stations.
Coupled with that, stations that have only changed the transmission plants have plans to go into the studio and go digital or go HD, and there's newsgathering. There will be a lot of boxes going in and out of the loading docks of every station for many years go come.