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Taking A Multicasting Lesson From The BBC

Unless you’ve been in a cave, you know that last month the House and Senate approved legislation that would convert the country to all-digital television broadcasting by February 17, 2009 (meaning that if the bill becomes law, the last day of analog will be Monday, February 16, 2009). Whether Tuesday will become “Digital Tuesday” or “Black Tuesday” (perhaps “Snowy Tuesday” would be more appropriate for analog TV viewers) in the history books is anyone’s guess.

You’ve probably also heard or read that up to $1.5 billion (down from the Senate’s original $3 billion) will be used to help the 21 million or so households that rely on free, over-the-air television.

Households will be able to get up to two $40 DTV set-top box vouchers, which is great considering that manufacturers like LG predict a $50 set-top box by 2008. So everything will work out just fine...more or less. Of course 21 million households is a conservative figure. The NAB estimates there are 24 million over-the-air households and “73 million television sets that rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcasting and will need a converter box in order to continue receiving television signals in the digital era.”

Some households will have only one TV and only need one voucher while others will need both. Mathematically, $1.5 billion should cover it, as long as there are minimal administrative costs.

But then there’s that 73 million TV set figure from the NAB. Are we to subsidize every single over-the-air analog TV? Do we really need to subsidize someone with an over-the-air TV in a $150,000 RV? Heck, some would argue that we shouldn’t be subsidizing anyone. But I digress.

Two small little items that didn’t get as much play in the press: HD cable downconversion and multicasting.

Some good news for broadcasters and consumers was that the House stripped out a provision that would have permitted cable operators to downconvert HD signals to SD. Of course, cable operators can still compress the hell out of HD making it look worse than VHS. But I digress yet again.

On to multicasting. Digital television cable multicasting must-carry did not make it into the bill.

What’s a broadcaster to do? Lots of money invested in DTV, more in multicasting—which the majority of stations say they’ll do with an average of just under three channels a station.

It’s time to take a lesson from the BBC. If you’ve ever watched the BBC, you’ve noticed that they do something interesting. They cross promote their networks. Not just by running promos of programs that are on sister networks like Fox and HBO do, but by telling you what’s coming up next on those other networks.

Here’s an example: let’s say you’re watching BBC1. Between programs, with the network logo on the screen, an announcer would say “Up next on BBC1, EastEnders, and on BBC2, The Office.”

Now let’s take the BBC’s lesson and bring it to a broadcaster in the U.S. “Up next on CBS7-1, CSI, on CBS7-2, Two and a Half Men and on CBS7-3, The High School Game of the Week live from Truman High. Not getting CBS7-2 or 7-3? Call your cable or satellite company.”

Nothing pisses off a viewer more than not being able to see a program they want to watch.

Multicasting means it’s time to compete. Not only against your area’s other broadcasters, but with everything else that viewers can watch.

Your multicasting programming must be compelling. There’s no free ride on cable. If people want to watch your secondary channels, then they’ll (hopefully) make the call.

But there’s always another alternative for your viewers that can really get on the nerves of an industry that was built on the backs of broadcasters. Add the following to your cross promotional message: “Or get them for free with over-the-air DTV.”

Michael Silbergleid is the editor and associate publisher of Television Broadcast. He can be reached at