1,826 Days and Counting

By the time many of you read this, I will have filled the technology editor’s chair here for five years. In early August of 2005, I put the wraps on a career in television broadcast engineering that stretched back just short of 37 years and decided to try on another hat to see how well it fit.

I can date my beginnings at the magazine with precision, as coincident with my arrival, Hurricane Katrina had pumped herself up to a Cat 5 storm down in the Gulf of Mexico and was slamming Louisiana and Mississippi coastlines. I spent my first few days here attempting to contact TV broadcasters in that part of the world for a first-hand account of how their operations were coping with the storm.

Things seem to have come full circle in five years. As I write this, the Gulf region has been pounded again, this time by an undersea oil well. We all know how Katrina played out, and even though the well seems to be securely capped right now, no one really knows for certain exactly how this latest disaster will end.

After some 1,826 days on the job, it’s interesting to look back at what’s gone on in the TV broadcasting sector between these natural and man-made disasters.

The biggest event, of course, was this country’s complete transition to digital broadcasting. June 12, 2009 saw all of the full power analog stations shutting down for the last time. This finally happened after several missed FCC deadlines for taking us into the age of digital TV broadcasting. Despite gloom and doom predictions, “D-Day” came about with more of a whimper than a bang. However, some people are still without adequate service and several V stations who thought they were sitting pretty are pushing for UHF slots to get back their old analog coverage.

I probably shouldn’t even mention the DTV tuner mandate and the “great converter box coupon give-away program” leading up to June 12, but these did keep quite a few writers (and politicians) busy.

Broadband over Power Lines (BPL), which had the potential to interfere with low-band VHFs, came and went (mostly) with no one shedding tears at its wake.

The Great Recession arrived near the end of 2007, forcing some television groups to declare bankruptcy, and ultimately spelling rough sledding for some TV equipment manufacturers.

In June of 2008, the CALM act was introduced and passed a House vote a few months later. Not long afterwards, the ATSC’s A/85 recommended practice document on television audio levels was ratified. Hopefully, the latter will bring about some peace, before the full force of the former is necessary.

2008 also saw the great “white space” debate—with a lot of noise (no pun intended, really) being generated about this encroachment on over-the-air TV broadcasting. However, as with a lot of decisions these days, it seemed to be more of a done deal than a debate, with commissioners giving the nod to the white space people five to zip. White space devices now are sort of like cockroaches—just something else that’s not going away and something we have to live with.

Mobile DTV also came to the forefront, with the formal approval of another ATSC standard—A/153—last fall. This appears to be a solid way for delivering digital video to end users, and stations and viewers alike seem to be nodding in approval. Time will tell.

Many of us are still smarting about the most recent FCC antic—another proposed TV spectrum grab. Hardly was the ink dry on the paperwork requesting the aforementioned DTV channel swaps when the Commission announced its latest encroachment on broadcasting, this time eyeing another 20 TV channel slots, in addition to the 30+ that broadcasters have already surrendered. Again, we’ll have to see just how this plays out.

On the positive side of the spectrum situation, it’s nice to know that the long-running Sprint-financed 2 GHz BAS relocation has officially ended, with both Sprint and the broadcasters winning. Spectrum was freed up and stations got some nice new microwave gear.

The last five years have also seen me traveling to several interesting places and meeting some very nice people along the way. The list is way too long for inclusion here, but perhaps topping it was a trip out to Des Moines shortly after this year’s NAB Show. I spent three days there following Scott Avitt around as he plied his trade as a cathode ray tube rebuilder. Changes in the television receiver and monitor industry are forcing him to shutter his company’s doors this month, after more than half a century in business.

That experience drove home just how much change I’ve seen in this industry of ours; not only in the past four decades or so that I’ve been involved in it, but just in the last five years. I can hardly wait to see what the next five bring.

James O'Neal, Technology Editor

TV Technology