GUEST EDITORIALDigital TV: The Big Picture

As we kick off NAB2003, I am delighted to report that interest in digital and high definition television is soaring, as evidenced on many fronts.

The number of stations that flipped the digital switch has more than tripled in the last year, from 215 (in 2002) to more than 800 today. Local stations in nearly 185 of the country’s 210 television markets are delivering digital and HDTV programming. This expansion means that more than 97% of U.S. TV households are in a market now served by an over-the-air DTV signal. Moreover, 75% of TV households are in a market served by five or more digital signals and nearly 40% have access to digital broadcasting from eight or more TV stations.

Local broadcasters are committed to bringing high-quality digital programming to viewers. Television stations have spent billions of dollars on the process of conversion, investing in new transmitters as well as digital editing and processing equipment. In many cases, they also are erecting new broadcast towers.

We have also seen a huge increase in high definition programming. With networks airing more than 2,000 hours of high definition programming for the 2002-2003 season, the amount has doubled in the past year. The HDTV lineup includes almost all primetime shows on CBS and ABC, many primetime shows on NBC, plus programming on the WB network and PBS. Hollywood is getting into the high def picture as well. CBS and ABC recently broadcast the 45th Annual Grammy Awards and the 75th Annual Academy Awards in HDTV, respectively.

For sports fans, CBS kicked off the new year and playoff season by broadcasting both AFC Divisional Playoff games and the AFC Championship in HD. And if that wasn’t enough, the most watched sporting event—Super Bowl XXXVII—was broadcast in HD on ABC. Television viewers also can look forward to other major sporting events expected to be broadcast in HD, which include the U.S. Open, The Masters, the NCAA Final Four, horse racing’s Triple Crown, the Stanley Cup Finals and the NBA Finals. Looking ahead, ABC announced it will air the entire 2003-2004 season of Monday Night Football in HDTV.

The latest figures from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) show that consumer purchases of digital TV sets, digital displays, and digital reception equipment are growing exponentially. According to the CEA, manufacturer-to-dealer sales of DTV products sold during 2002 surpassed 2001 total sales by 73% in units and 61% in dollars.

With the increase in digital broadcasters, set sales rising, and more primetime and sports programming in HDTV, NAB continues to build on consumers’ growing interest in DTV with its national campaign. Our “Digital TV Zone” program—now being carried out in Washington, DC, following Houston, Indianapolis, and Portland, OR—consists of several components that allow consumers to see, hear, and experience HDTV up close. One of the ways we accomplish this is through our Digital Landmarks—widescreen HDTV sets that have been situated in high pedestrian traffic areas. Consumer enthusiasm for digital TV is evidenced by the more than 500 hits a day on, the campaign website. The participation of local broadcasters, Zenith, and retailers such as Tweeter, Myer-Emco, and Graffiti in the Washington, DC area has helped create a successful program.

As with any technology transition, there are challenges to overcome. One of those challenges was addressed last fall when the FCC mandated the phase-in of DTV tuners in all television receivers beginning this year. This bold, pro-consumer initiative means that over time, virtually all television sets will have the built-in capability of receiving digital and HDTV programming provided by local broadcast stations. Given the steady drop in DTV set prices, we do not believe consumers will see any price increase as a result of the mandate. More importantly, the tuner mandate will ensure that consumers continue to have easy access to the highest-quality programming offered by free, over-the-air broadcasters.

We also saw an agreement between consumer electronics and cable companies regarding the issue of “plug-and-play” that will help speed the transition from analog to digital television by allowing consumers to buy digital TVs that connect to digital cable without the need for a set-top box. The agreement sets the stage for a national plug-and-play standard between DTV products and digital cable systems.

One unresolved piece of the DTV transition remains: the issue of cable carriage. Unfortunately, the signals of fewer than 10% of over-the-air DTV stations are being carried on a cable system. If the goal of Congress and the FCC is to speed the transition to digital, cable operators must make over-the-air DTV signals available to viewers. As the gatekeeper to millions of American homes, cable has a responsibility to recognize the value of these offerings and make them available to subscribers.

Though there are very real challenges ahead, we can be proud of the enormous progress made by broadcasters on the road to digital. Local stations are delivering on the DTV promise, and we are confident that broadcasters will continue to be pioneers in bringing the next generation of television viewing to the American public.

Eddie Fritts is president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters.