Broadcast DTV: It’s Time to Go On the Record!

Here we go again. Another NAB. Another embarrassing go-around for the terrestrial "DTV transition." Privately, many of the nation’s best broadcast engineers now shake their heads in disgust. How, they ask, could something have gone so terribly wrong and why can’t it be fixed?

Very few industry figures of credibility will publicly express their honest opinions about DTV anymore. It’s a political hot potato. Too many mistakes have been made. Too much money wasted. Too much crow to be eaten. Never before in broadcasting have so many conversations begun with, "this will have to be ‘off-the-record.’ You understand why."


One respected veteran broadcast engineer put it this way: "This is not a good scene to be dealing with. Tradeshow after tradeshow, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars pretending things are getting better. Trade organizations are all presenting a supportive face, while the broadcasters and consumers remain confused and skeptical.

"It is time," he continued, "for all associated with this transition to call a halt, fix problems, finish writing critical standards, and have cable, satellite and terrestrial broadcast harmonize their efforts and standards. If this takes another four years, so be it. To do nothing will simply ensure pain for all of us for the foreseeable future."

Increasingly, a new question is being asked – What problem are we trying to solve? If more than two-thirds of U.S. households are now subscribing to cable and satellite TV services and the movement toward pay TV continues, why implement a new terrestrial DTV system at all? Are we building a new highway to nowhere? Why not just let analog service, with which the viewing public seems content, to continue to serve that diminishing number of over-the-air viewers?


There’s even suspicion that upcoming "enhancements" to the flawed 8-VSB transmission system will actually make the situation worse. "I am willing to bet that HDTV cannot be supported," an engineer speculated to eventual changes to 8-VSB. "Can you imagine such a stupid decision being made? This is supposed to be a standard that we can live with for the next 20 years. I would guess that there are only two to three people at those ATSC meetings who believe that what is being done is the correct thing. Others are too afraid to speak out, and this includes the FCC.

"What is a broadcaster to do? Sacrifice bandwidth for the sake of robust reception? If I were the NAB, I would say NO," he continued. "Change the modulation system to something that can do the job and stop delaying? Remember, it was the promise of HDTV that kicked off interest from Congress."

Others think it’s too late to fix what’s already a sinking ship. Perhaps, it was suggested, the industry should quit tinkering with on-air transmission technology and begin to focus on a serious, workable integration of all TV services into a single, easy-to-use receiver.

"I would suggest that total confusion exists in the consumer marketplace," said a senior executive for a leading equipment manufacturer. "I have seen content in the stores with an HDTV logo burned into the image that was, in fact, SDTV. Sales people will say anything to please the consumer."

The executive also ridiculed the way the transition is being measured and portrayed as a success. Citing the percentage of U.S. households within signal reach of a digital station means little, he said. "Who cares about population coverage? Viewers care about choice. There are some five to 10 cities where a wide choice is available. This after six years since the ‘go’ button was pushed. Is this real progress?"

With the recent relaxation of FCC transition rules, he said skepticism has escalated. "This is a joke. Already there are reception problems related to assigned power levels being too low. Along comes the FCC to say ‘you can even go lower for some period.’ What does the poor consumer do when he can’t receive the DTV channel? He gives up and returns his set. Are we crazy?

"I wonder who believes the rollout plan anymore. Are the broadcasters really interested in DTV when they can all make more money with NTSC services?"


There was agreement among our "off-the-record" sources that a genuine resolution to the broadcast industry’s problems is not going to come from existing organizations. Repeatedly, we heard suggestions for an appointed "DTV Czar" with the status and power to force the resolution of standards and copyright protection issues among various players in the television industry.

"This could be done with some head-bashing and a desire to solve the problems," an engineer said. "This person would have to be tough ... very tough. For a while he would be vilified and then – if successful – he’d become a hero."

More than once, the name of the late ABC engineering executive Julius Barnathan came to mind when describing the kind of individual who’d be up to the task. Barnathan, a brash, no-nonsense pioneer of new broadcast technologies, was known to use his considerable power in the 1970s to force fiercely competitive equipment manufacturers to agree on standards.

Another executive suggested that the industry designate an official "rest period" to sort out the issues. "Who would have the intestinal fortitude to suggest this? I don’t know. But it’s possible if some people swallow their pride. The FCC, CEA and NAB could make it happen. They’d have to get past the problem that it would be viewed, politically, as a delay.

"Another problem is convincing consumers that DTV is for real. The CEA-NAB marketing alliance is a poor effort and will fail. Consumers must be protected while the industry sorts out its technical problems. We must promise that current products will be replaced, free of charge, when we have a standard that we can be proud of," the executive said. "I don’t know who would fund this. But if we move quickly, the cost could be minimal. (Pausing) Oh, I’d say about the price of one day’s war in Afghanistan should do it."

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.