Download: Are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

The May 1, 2002, deadline for all U.S. commercial broadcasters to begin operation of their DTV channels is now history. History will note that the majority — 894 of the nation's 1300 commercial stations — recently filed for extensions to this deadline. Many of those who have met the deadline have done so with less than full enthusiasm, not to mention less than the full licensed power levels for which their DTV channels have been authorized.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell at an NAB Q&A session with ABC’s Sam Donaldson: “We don’t love anyone.” The chairman made it clear that the FCC will not prop up over-the-air broadcasting if broadcasters are not able to gain support from consumers.

The continuing delays with the DTV transition once again dominated discussions about the future of broadcasting at the recent National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. Like restless children, imprisoned in the back seat of minivans headed for a distant destination, the question on the lips of many panel moderators and members of the media was: “Are we there yet?”

Industry luminaries noted the growing interest in digital television by consumers, but the success stories have little to do with consumer demand for DTV receivers. Sales of digital television monitors continue to be driven by DVD and the digital programming offered by cable and DBS. Broadcasters continue to blame a multitude of factors for their plight. At the top of the list is the lack of carriage of DTV signals by cable.

Just days before the industry gathered in Las Vegas for NAB, FCC Chairman Michael Powell announced a voluntary plan to help accelerate the DTV transition (see sidebar: “Powell: ‘Time to step up to the plate’”). The plan addresses a number of issues that have become barriers to the transition, as the consumer electronics, cable, DBS and broadcast industries wrestle for control of digital television. The plan seeks to encourage each of the major networks to offer at least 50 percent of their prime-time programming either as HDTV or with enhancements that differentiate the programming from that carried on the analog channels. Stations in the top 100 markets are encouraged to pass this content through (no downconversions). It asks cable to carry up to five channels of HD and enhanced programming, but does not stipulate that this content originate with DTV broadcasters. It asks the cable and consumer electronics industries to make HD-capable set-top boxes available to consumers. And it establishes a phased timetable for TV set manufacturers to include DTV receivers in new sets.

Powell insists that there will be no swinging of the bureaucratic club. During an NAB question-and-answer session with ABC News anchor Sam Donaldson, Powell said the plan was completely voluntary. But it is clear that the chairman hopes that the use of his FCC bully pulpit will encourage the long-cantankerous industry segments to work together to accelerate the DTV transition.

“This transition is not just important to broadcasting. It's important to America, and it's been languishing for far too long,” Powell said. “Every one of those segments has to step up to the plate and do things they don't like and do some things they will like. All of them have something to gain.”

Leaders of the affected industries promised to take a close look at Powell's proposals, signaling cautious approval for the plan.

NAB President and CEO Edward O. Fritts called Chairman Powell's plan “a major step forward in breaking the DTV logjam.” Congratulating Powell on the proposal Fritts said, “While we have concerns over elements of the proposal, we stand ready to work with the FCC and Congress to bring consumers the next generation of television.”

“Our industry remains committed to working with the FCC, Congress and all other relevant parties to continue to drive the transition forward,” said Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association. But Shapiro cautioned, “The devil is in the details.”

And Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said Powell's initiative contained some thought-provoking proposals that the group would discuss with the agency.

During the NAB session with Donaldson, Powell made it clear that broadcasters need to adapt to a changing marketplace, and that DTV is part of fundamental changes taking place in the communications industries. Powell said, “You have to get on the train, or it will run over you.”

Donaldson pointedly asked the chairman if he would be upset if DTV broadcasting failed to gain the support of consumers and simply faded from the scene. Powell responded, “We don't love anyone,” making it clear that broadcasters cannot depend on the government to prop up their franchise in the face of competition and a changing technological landscape.

Taking the low road

Meanwhile, on the show floor, broadcasters were exploring their options, enabled by the relaxed rules related to financial hardship, power levels and hours of operation that the FCC put into place last fall. Those rules state that initially stations need only reach their city of license with digital TV, rather than replicating their entire analog coverage areas.

A high percentage of the applications for extensions of the May 1 deadline were related to financial hardship, and another sizable category were related to interference issues with existing NTSC channels. The ability to operate at low power levels initially addresses both of these issues.

At NAB manufacturers were offering digital-TV transmission systems priced as low as $50,000 for as few as 1000 W.

David Glidden, director of TV transmission products for Harris, says the low power approach can save broadcasters $50,000 to $75,000 per year in electricity compared to operating a 60 kW IOT transmitter. Those savings may be sufficient to justify the capital investment in a temporary solution while the DTV market develops.

Keeping the pressure on

While the FCC has relaxed the initial requirements for DTV broadcasting, it does not appear that they are relaxing the pressure on broadcasters to get a DTV signal on the air. The FCC sent 309 requests for additional information to stations that had requested extensions to the May 1 deadline.

While it may take some time to untangle the remaining issues that have caused so many broadcasters to miss the deadline, it appears that most commercial stations are moving forward with plans that will allow them to meet at least the minimal requirements for DTV broadcasting by the end of the year.

Looking forward to NAB2003, there may be fewer excuses for why we are not there yet. But it appears that progress will continue to be slow. There was one area in which there seemed to be nearly unanimous agreement during NAB panels and discussions in the hallways. Nobody believes that the transition will be over in 2006.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs, and hosts and moderates the OpenDTV Forum.

Web Links

The Powell Proposal

FCC Letters of Inquiry regarding extensions to DTV deadline

Powell: “Time to step up to the plate”

Asking all of the parties involved in the transition to digital television to step up to the plate, FCC Chairman Michael Powell delivered a five-point plan to help accelerate the DTV transition on the eve of NAB. Here are the basic elements of that plan. A link to the full proposal is included in the Web Links with this article.

  1. The top four broadcast networks (i.e., ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC), and several cable networks including HBO and Showtime, should provide high-definition or other “value-added DTV programming” during at least 50 percent of their prime-time schedule, beginning with the 2002-03 season.
  2. By Jan. 1, 2003, or as soon thereafter as they commence broadcasting, DTV affiliates of the top four networks in markets 1-100 will obtain and install the equipment necessary to pass through network DTV without degradation of signal quality (e.g., pass through HD programming, if that is what the network provides).
  3. By Jan. 1, 2003, cable systems with 750 MHz or higher channel capacity are asked to offer to carry, at no cost, the signals of up to five broadcast or other digital programming services that are providing value-added digital programming during at least 50 percent of their prime-time schedule.In addition, they are asked to provide cable subscribers the option of leasing or purchasing a single set-top box that allows for the display of high-definition programming.
  4. By Jan. 1, 2003, DBS services are asked to carry the signals of up to five digital programming services that are providing value-added digital programming during at least 50 percent of their prime-time schedule.
  5. Consumer electronic manufacturers are being asked to commit to meeting the demand for cable set-top boxes that allow for the display of high-definition programming, and to market broadcast, cable and satellite DTV options at point-of-sale.