DTV status report

We are currently in the worst advertising market since World War II. The current economics make for unfortunate timing, but our path towards DTV was set long before our present business climate developed. DTV will soon be universally available, in theory. The first day of May is the deadline for all commercial stations to have their DTV signals on the air. Not all are going to make it, but the industry is showing momentum as some of the obstacles facing broadcasters in their DTV buildout are being knocked down to size. However, a couple of sizable roadblocks still stand.

Status of DTV stations

The first is the state of the DTV universe. According to the FCC, 87 percent, or 1686 television stations, have been granted a DTV construction permit or license. Currently, 179 stations are on the air with licensed facilities and 76 are on the air with special or experimental DTV authority.

There are currently 160 construction permits for commercial stations that have not been issued due to international frequency coordination problems, conflicts with each other and a variety of other technical reasons.

The 40 network-affiliated stations in the top ten markets were all up and running, but the destruction of the World Trade Center has taken WNBC-DT and WABC-DT down. Of the 79 network stations in markets 11-30, 95 percent of those are on the air with some type of DTV signal.

Many stations are aggressively pushing to meet the May 1 deadline, and a significant amount of construction activity is under way. The FCC did allow stations to seek extensions during the month of February by filing Form 337 and stating whether technical, legal, financial or other reasons were going to prevent them from meeting the deadline. According to a recent NAB survey, 75 percent of the stations that have yet to go on the air or apply for DTV plan to seek an extension. Next month we will list stations requesting more time. Last year, the FCC issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order on Reconsideration in which they stated that some of the DTV rollout requirements might be hindering instead of helping the cause.

Signal requirements

So the FCC relaxed, at least temporarily, a few of the requirements. Probably the most significant is that it will allow stations to initially sign on with lower-power signals than originally assigned and not lose their interference protection in areas where they don't replicate their Grade B signal.

Originally, the plan was a good old-fashioned land grab where the first to cover fringe areas of service would be protected against interference when DTV stations in adjacent markets pushed their signal out to tangential coverage areas. The DTV latecomer would be the loser in any interference issues.

Now the FCC says that won't be the case. The FCC doesn't want DTV license holders to delay because of the burden of financing full-power facilities or having to wait on the additional hardware a full-power vs. lower-power station would require.

Currently, the DTV station will only have to cover its city of license with a DTV service contour (35 dBu for channels 2-6, 43 dBu for channels 7-13, 48 dBu for channels 14-69). The FCC increased the signal strength to those levels a year ago by 7 dBu. The power levels go into effect at the end of 2004 for commercial stations and in 2005 for educational stations, even though they were adopted last year.

Many transmitter companies are now offering low-power transmitters (up to 1 kW TPO), which gives stations a lower-cost start-up option. Most of the transmitters can later be reused when the station increases their power. A TV station's staff can often install this transmitter by themselves. Jay Adrick, vice president of strategic business development for Harris, and Dave Glidden, director of TV transmission products for Harris, say that they have seen a steady rate of installs, about four per week, among all transmitter vendors, and that those who need to be on the air by May 1 have generally placed orders far enough in advance to meet that requirement. The U.S. television market has placed orders for approximately 700 transmitters to date. They haven't noticed a shortage of tower crews, the required hardware past the gas-stop, or tower appurtenance delaying the buildouts.

The FCC took a couple of additional steps to lessen the financial load on DTV stations. Although it didn't extend the April 1, 2003, date at which a DTV station must simulcast 50 percent of its NTSC schedule, it did allow, in the near term, stations to be on the air only during prime-time. John Morgan of the FCC points out that the exception are the top 30 market network affiliates, who must continue to keep their DTV on the air any time their NTSC is transmitting.

The commission is also temporarily deferring its requirement that commercial stations with NTSC and DTV assignments within the channel 2-52 DTV core decide which of the two channels they would keep when NTSC finally goes dark. This will allow broadcasters to gain more experience with their new DTV channel assignments before having to choose between the two.

One of the ongoing distractions that has been laid to rest, at least in the core channels, is the modulation debate. 8-VSB's once tenuous hold on the DTV standard is now certain, despite efforts of COFDM proponents. Still, some are now worried that COFDM has not been totally pushed off the table. In the coming auction of channels 52-59, the winning bidders for the spectrum can use the channel any way they wish. This means that successful applicants can use the channel to transmit 8-VSB, COFDM or other types of modulation. Some believe that the winning bids may be too high to justify the use of 8-VSB for TV applications.

Receiving DTV

The NAB says that at least 75 percent of U.S. households have access to at least one DTV signal. That is only if they put up an antenna to receive it. Broadcast Engineering's DTV receive antenna expert, Peter Putman, has a Web site demonstrating that in many locations DTV can be received with inexpensive antennas. DTV receivers' processing power continues to improve, especially their ability to reduce the effects of multipath. Prices for these receivers continue downward also. In June, Zenith will offer an integrated DTV receiver with 32" display that will retail for under $1500.

Many feel that the cable industry is thwarting the DTV rollout, as only a few cable systems are providing 8-VSB DTV signals to the home. Most cable systems use QAM technology for their distribution and STBs. Many believe this is the cable industry's way of controlling viewer access. Some broadcasters have wondered whether DTV stations could band together and create mini over-the-air cable-type channel lineups by integrating their PSIPs. The cable industry generally won't pass any PSIP info, and they effectively dissolve the transmitted ATSC bit stream back to a single NTSC stream. In addition, cable systems that air both the NTSC and DTV signals of a broadcaster often put the DTV signal in their digital tier of services. Even worse, the bit rate for a channel there is often below 1 Mbit/s.

ATSC streams

Broadcasters are still not certain what to put in their ATSC streams. DTV was originally sold to Congress as HDTV. But the ATSC standard is extremely flexible, offering broadcasters the capability to offer HDTV, SDTV and data in a variety of combinations. In a bid to bring in some revenue sooner rather than later, other models besides HD are being considered. Some revolve around some form of data transmission along with an SD program. Unfortunately, the data proponents are still looking for customers, many of whom are worried that the real savior of broadcast television, HD, is not being given a fighting chance. It could be argued that SD on ATSC produces video that simply exchanges NTSC's set of transmission artifacts with a set of ATSC artifacts. The MPEG encoding process used in the ATSC DTV standard produces sharper pictures, eliminating noise and ghosting. But the spatial and temporal artifacts that can occur as a result of the broadcaster trying to fit as many signals or other data into the channel as possible can be distracting. Using the full bandwidth to produce stunning pictures in HD might be the fastest way to make DTV economically worthwhile.

Promoting HD

There are groups that are doing just that. The Dispatch Broadcast Group, which has stations in Columbus and Indianapolis, has been an early promoter of HD. They believe that broadcasters will have to help educate the public by reaching out into the community. Their stations did some of the earliest DTV-aired HD remotes, as far back as 1998. Marvin Born, director of engineering for the group, says their stations are committed to HDTV. Instead of merely passing the network's HD content, they have the capability to play back HD locally as well. To do justice to HD, and to prevent the artifacts from interfering with the remarkable video quality, most of the bit stream is devoted to the HD signal. The Dispatch Broadcast group does resort to multiple SD when it serves the viewers' interest. WBNS-DT Columbus, which serves a large college basketball market, has aired simultaneous games on their DTV channel when they were of interest locally.

The NAB is helping to push HD as well. In three markets, Houston, Indianapolis and Portland, OR, a “DTV Zone” promotional campaign is being launched in conjunction with the Consumer Electronics Association. Dennis Wharton of the NAB says that his organization has produced a 30-second spot that the local stations will air on their NTSC stations for free. In conjunction with that, local retailers are expected to place commercials on those stations to promote HD products. These three markets were selected because all the networks have affiliate DTV stations on the air. Set makers are providing high-definition TVs for public demonstrations in high-profile DTV Zones in each market. John Taylor of Zenith says that his company realizes that the manufacturers must do their part to educate not only the public, but also those charged with selling DTV products to the consumer.

HD programming continues to grow, even though much was made that Fox did not offer the Super Bowl in HD this year. Virtually all of CBS's and ABC's entire prime-time lineups and movies are in HD. NBC's DTV affiliates broadcast the Salt Lake Winter Games in HD, but only on a one-day delayed basis. The effort required to receive those signals decreases as the receive hardware evolves and becomes less expensive.

The DTV puzzle

With DTV we don't have the vertical integration reach that RCA had with the introduction of color television, namely a broadcast equipment manufacturer, broadcaster, and television receiver manufacturer all rolled into one. But even then color technology took a few years to gain enough velocity to take flight. With more than 325 DTV products on the market today and more affordable receivers coming, DTV has gained some velocity. Unfortunately, DTV has one roadblock that color TV never had to overcome — cable! As the gatekeeper to almost 80 percent of American homes, all it takes is a Quam-only STB to keep broadcasters' digital signals invisible. However, if the industry, FCC and cable can agree on some new carriage rules and common technology, the final piece of the DTV puzzle will be in place.

Jim Boston is a West Coast consultant.