Is DTV dead?

I’ve started an ongoing tally of engineers’ responses to my question, “When will you turn off your DTV transmitter?” It’s parsed in the sense I’m asking "when" would you turn off your OTA digital transmitter. Usually I first get a “You’ve got to be kidding” response. After some discussion, the answer becomes a bit more circumspect.

As of today, less than 3 percent U.S. households haven’t prepared for the DTV conversion. That means that these households have not purchased satellite or cable service, nor have they obtained a DTV converter box. This represents a 50 percent improvement over the number of households who were not prepared for the loss of analog television back in December.

Back to my question to chief engineers.

Way back in 1985, the then director of engineering at the KSN network, Jack McKain, told me “I’ve purchased my last transmitter.” When questioned, he explained that he believed that stations would increasingly rely on cable/satellite connections to deliver OTA television. “Why would I pay $10,000 per month for transmitter power, just to reach 5 percent of my audience, when I can feed 95 percent of my audience for the cost of a fiber loop to the local cable headend?” he asked.

Initially, I found his thoughts more than a bit radical. However, as time has proven, he was right. Add to that equation today’s economic woes, and the benefits of not having OTA transmission begin to look better and better.

Some engineers strongly protest the idea that broadcasters would ever stop OTA transmissions. After all, what are "broadcasters" than OTA, well, broadcasters. That argument used to carry water, but no longer. Just ask ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC. All of these networks have Internet delivery and cable-backed delivery of their programs in place. Add to that mash-up the desire of networks to feed directly to homes, sans any local affiliates, and the sheer cost of keeping a transmitter operating just to serve a few thousand viewers starts to look like a black hole.

Of course, there is the rainbow pot-o-gold many broadcasters are hoping for — transmission to mobiles. But, there has yet to be a revenue-producing OTA implementation, nor is there any certainty the technology will ever be profitable. While broadcasters hope the idea works and many may participate, the jury is still out, and we won’t know the results for more than a year.

I read a blog post titled “What if they gave a DTV transition and nobody came?” In the post, this Linux techno geek writer railed about the end of OTA transmission and how he didn’t need it anyway. His solution was something called MythTV, which is a Linux implementation providing a TiVo-like solution. While many of the comments to the post were supportive, it’s obvious that the average viewer is never going to use the solution. It’s simply too complicated.

So where does all this leave us? I came to the conclusion that the idea of turning off the station transmitter is still too early for reality. However, eventually, the bean counters will look at the numbers, make a financial decision, and the need for a “transmitter engineer” could become a historic footnote.

Tell me what you think.