Getting The Word Out To The Viewers

ALEXANDRIA, VA.—If you know me, you know I like to talk, and one of the main topics of discourse is television. While such conversations are no problem with my friends within the television community, I almost always experience a very severe “disconnect” when attempting to communicate on the subject with “lay” people.

Baltimore’s Television Hill
I’m not talking “deep techno” here such as compression or transmission modulation schemes, but rather basic perception about what’s going on in the TV broadcast world. Continuing to amaze me is the total “blank” that’s drawn when I mention ATSC 3.0, as well as the revelation to those mostly in their 40s and younger, that television reception is available “free” for the taking. I have to blame the media for this. Even the recent revelation that the FCC had given the nod to ATSC 3.0 transmissions was either ignored completely by the newspapers or relegated to just a few lines on the business or entertainment page. (I’m not sure that it made the evening news on most TV stations either.)

Many years ago (50 to be exact), I was a fulltime college student working part-time in broadcasting to help defray some of my educational expenses. One of the operations I worked for then was part of a small group of stations with its corporate offices in Oklahoma City. The owner, who referred to himself as “Big Jack,” had a slogan that was emblazoned on just about everything connected with his stations: news cars, ballpoint pens, giveaway rain ponchos and pocket protectors; you name it. His message was given its greatest visibility at the Oklahoma City studio and transmitter site, where it was spread across two nearly block-long fences surrounding the compound. It read:

“Big Jack says if you want to sell them, you’ve got to tell them!”

The pitch, of course, was to encourage advertisers to place their commercial messages on one or more of his stations.

“Big Jack” is long gone, but his message is as true now as it was half a century ago, and seems very applicable in terms of informing the masses about what’s going on in broadcast television.

This was brought home recently when I had occasion to visit Baltimore and pass by the city’s “Television Hill.” (For those of you not familiar with Maryland’s largest city, it is the site of the world’s first implementation of a “candelabra” TV antenna installation, with multiple transmitting antennas supported on a platform atop a single tower. Placed into service in 1959, the candelabra is located at the highest point in Baltimore and is used by a number of television stations. [Another tower was later erected on the “Hill” to accommodate additional transmitting installations.])

Although Television Hill is a very visible city landmark and is located adjacent to a major arterial into Baltimore traveled by thousands of vehicles each day, there is no signage to indicate exactly what it is and/or what takes place there. If you ask the man or woman on the street, they would likely tell you that it has something to do with television, but in this age of cable, satellite, and Internet-delivered TV, that’s about it.

It occurred to me that Baltimore’s television broadcasters seem to be missing the boat in terms of promoting “free TV” and heralding the introduction of ATSC 3.0.

What a great location for an outdoor billboard similar to that erected by “Big Jack” in Oklahoma City at his transmitter site! The signage might read:

“Baltimore Broadcasters invest more than $XXX each year at this site to provide you with free television. Learn more about this and what’s coming soon to provide even better viewing experiences. Visit www.xxxyyyxxx for complete information.”

Such exposure need not be confined to Baltimore. There are similar highly visible transmitter sites in other localities as well. Broadcasters should be using these to promote their services and to inform the public about “what’s next” in television. To do otherwise is indeed a big “missed opportunity.”

“If you want to sell them, you’ve got to tell them!”

James O’Neal is the former technology editor for TV Technology.