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GUEST EDITORIALWhere Are We Going With Digital Television?

This question baffles regulators, consumers, and yes, broadcast industry folks. Worse, the very idea of a digital transition has this industry frozen in its tracks, fearing the unknown and dreading the future. Industry executives sit idle in the shadows, desperately holding onto an outmoded analog crutch. Lawsuits replace leadership. Delay smothers direction. Timidity squelches advance. Our viewers are cheated. Our businesses erode.

Don't believe that this is the way "it has to be." There are companies that proceed full throttle in the testing, development, and implementation of digital broadcast technology. While DTV pioneers are usually the people with arrows coming out of their backs÷and we most certainly have a few of those arrows protruding÷we continue to explore this new world of broadcasting. From our experience, this is a land of plenty, and it's ripe for new settlers.

Welcome to WRAL-Digital, a locally owned and operated television station in Raleigh, NC.

On July 23, 1996, WRAL-HD, an experimental high definition television station, became the first station in the U.S. to broadcast a digital signal. Since then, WRAL has continued with further pioneering advancements in HD production, such as live satellite HD broadcasts, multicasting scenarios, and datacasting applications. Perhaps the most notable advancement made at WRAL was the daily production of local newscasts in high definition. At a minimum, WRAL-DT provides 30 hours a week of local news in the crystal clear, widescreen format. In addition to the newscasts, we produce four half-hour local interest programs a week and a plethora of documentaries and specials throughout the year, all in HD.

Beyond the weekly original HD programming and the HD content provided by CBS, WRAL-DT airs 20 hours of HD programming every day. The idea is to offer viewers the opportunity to see÷and retailers the opportunity to display÷the greatest advancement in broadcast television since its inception.

We are constantly asked two questions: "Why would you spend the money to convert to HD and why did you make the conversion first?" The answer is threefold.

First, H/DTV offers broadcasters the necessary tools to compete with cable and satellite companies in the future. It's good business. Second, as the leading broadcast station in our market, we feel that it is incumbent upon us to remain ahead of the game with technological advancements. We want to be first. That's good business. Third, it's the right thing to do. This statement generally produces a chuckle from our industry brethren, but it is probably the most important and most overlooked aspect of why we promote and explore DTV. The quality is better. Our viewers÷our customers÷deserve the best. That's good business, too.

The high definition element of DTV offers a broadcaster the ability to provide a product, both in image quality and audio, that is far superior to its analog counterpart. This fact by itself should catalyze the DTV transition. But on top of the HDTV aspect are the multicasting and datacasting elements of DTV. At WRAL-TV/DT, for example, we have launched the WRAL NewsChannel, a 24/7 news channel produced in standard definition. We datacast an abridged website, a video-on-demand version of our 6 p.m. newscasts, games, software, and more. We do all of these things simultaneously. And by taking advantage of statistical multiplexing, a technology we have come to adore, we do all of these things without jeopardizing picture quality.

I know what you're thinking. We may be doing all of these things, but we are not making any money doing them. You are right. These technologies are fledgling. But just like a newly hatched chick, feathers will come, wings will grow, and we will fly. As my father, Jim Goodmon, president of Capitol Broadcasting Company, says, "There is no magic involved in successful broadcasting and communications. Hard work, creativity, and a commitment to our audiences, our clients, and our employees have served us well since 1937÷they will serve us well in the future." Perhaps you have seen or heard the "short" version of this statement, "the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing."

The main thing is the product that we provide our viewers and clients. The way you improve the main thing is by providing us, the employees, with the necessary resources and support to make those improvements. Even at this early stage of development, it is clear to everyone here at WRAL that high definition helps in "telling the story." It creates an entirely new and fresh window to the world, not only for viewers, but for the producers of television programming, too. Phyllis Parish, executive producer of Programming at WRAL-TV/DT, said, "It is such a thrill to move our local programs into the world of high definition! What better way to broadcast the North Carolina School of the Arts' production of The Nutcracker ballet. What better medium to chronicle a still photographer's canoe trip down the Neuse River, capturing the diversity of one of our state's main waterways."

Our viewers tell us the same thing. The most common note we receive from WRAL-DT viewers is the unprompted, "Thank you for broadcasting in high definition. No one else has local news in HD, so I watch WRAL news instead of the others." This is why we want to be first. This is why we think it is good business. This is why we find it hard to understand why this entire industry is trying to slow the transition instead of speeding it up. Indeed, it is expensive and the returns are not immediate. But what are our options? We must recognize long-term value and invest in it. This is our future. We must embrace it!

Jimmy Goodmon is the manager of Programming and Special Projects at WRAL, Raleigh, NC.