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Business Abhors a Vacuum

Opportunity knocks. Once upon a time, all television broadcasts were analog and live, and there were no cell phones. Today is different.

Once upon a time, jet fuel was inexpensive, and the field was strictly regulated. With minimum ticket charges fixed, the best way airlines could make money was offering passengers the best experience.

Today, low round-trip prices seem to be all that count, so airlines are charging for itinerary changes, reservations by phone, checked baggage, food, headphones, and now even coffee and blankets. Even if they ultimately charge for the use of seats and toilets, they're trying to keep their core business, low-cost passenger tickets, intact.

What is your core business as a television broadcaster? It's probably keeping your advertisers (or, for public stations, funders) happy. To do that, you've got to deliver programming to viewers.


In the age of digital television, that delivery involves a transmitted stream of data. Chances are pretty good that you've also got a tower. And, if you're doing any news, you've probably got a studio.

Let's start with that data stream. Sometimes--at camera cuts or when following fast action at a basketball game, for example--you might need every single bit available. But, most of the time, you don't. There's so much redundancy between frames or pixels that it takes only a few bits to send any changes.

Some suggest dividing a station's data stream into TV subchannels or transmitting TV to mobile receivers. Those are certainly options, but TV programming needs bits all the time. That means those TV-transmitting options can prevent you from having as many bits as you need at those few times when you need them most.

With or without TV subchannels or TV-to-mobile transmissions, however, you'll still probably be transmitting null data packets most of the time. Think of them as spacers to maintain your data rate when the picture and sound you're sending don't need the whole channel. There's no reason they can't be filled with any kind of data that don't need bits all the time, including anything being fed to a server or big buffer memory: digital signage, transit schedules, bad credit-card numbers, stock tickers, textual news--even video downloads.

Unlike subchannel and mobile data-rate carve-outs that might make your main pictures look bad, this "opportunistic data" transmission has no downside. When you've got a hole, the data slip in; when you don't, they wait for the next hole. The FCC asks only a small tax on any additional revenues you earn this way. If you don't earn revenues, there's no tax.


As for your tower, the only function for which you need it is supporting your transmitting antenna and the feed to it. But wireless phone companies can use it for a cell site (or more than one). There are also microwave relays and other antennas. And why not some open-grid (for minimal wind resistance) LED video screens for advertising? You don't need very high resolution for a screen that far away from a viewer.

Check with your lawyer about liability and licensing issues and with your engineer about tower load and any possible effect on your viewing area (unlikely). And, of course, do a costs-vs.-revenues analysis. If it's favorable, go for it. You've got the space; make money with it.

Then there's that studio. If you're still doing news, you probably need it. You also need its cameras, pedestals, microphones, lighting instruments, air conditioners, and other equipment, not to mention all of the staff who make it work. But how much are you using it?

If you do two half-hour newscasts a day, that's one hour out of every 24 (and maybe less on weekends). What about the rest of the time?

You're experienced in producing and transmitting TV programming. How about producing corporate messages? Videoconferences? Commercials? Photo shoots? Band demos? It doesn't take a lot of time to use your otherwise wasted facilities.

Save a corner (not much) for emergencies. Toronto's CITY-TV's first studio fit in a closet.
There's a lot of talk about mobile digital TV, but making programs that people will want to watch on their tiny screens while holding their phones up requires new skills. Transmitting data and using a tower or studio are things you already know how to do.

Go ahead. Be opportunistic.

Mark Schubin is an engineering consultant whose clients range from the Metropolitan Opera to Sesame Workshop.