Leading The Digital TV Transition

Business is business. First and foremost, decisions have to make business sense. Therein lies part of the problem for broadcasters when making the leap to converting to digital operation. Another contributor to the industry's inertia is confusion over FCC rules and how, in fact, the commission intends to enforce them. But to focus on those issues is to allow ourselves to be distracted, to take our eyes off the ball.
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Business is business. First and foremost, decisions have to make business sense. Therein lies part of the problem for broadcasters when making the leap to converting to digital operation. Another contributor to the industry's inertia is confusion over FCC rules and how, in fact, the commission intends to enforce them. But to focus on those issues is to allow ourselves to be distracted, to take our eyes off the ball.

The ball, of course, is the digital facility conversion. The sports analogy here is apt because I sense a fear of getting into the game and so I am here to congratulate those who have cast fear aside and stepped up to the plate. Here at Digital TV, we have joined the team by creating a new magazine (at no small cost and no small risk) and devoting our pages to being the central forum for discussion of the very important issues involved in taking a station to its digital conclusion. The truly prominent members of the team, however, are those broadcasters who have found a way to not only convert their stations to digital but to make it smart to do so. They found a way to make it pay. Perhaps not so ironically, as I speak to these engineers and managers about the process they went through in making the decisions, they are all glad they did. Every one of them.

Still, they went through a three-stage process, much like an athlete does. First, there is trepidation. "Oh no! I can't do this. How do I justify it? It doesn't make sense." It's natural to be a little nervous before entering a game for the first time, especially now, amidst so much confusion, a tough economy and not knowing what your roster is going to be down the road. But this is hardball and you have to overcome that sort of reaction.

Phase two always seems to be exhilaration. "Great! Look what we can do now!" This is management realizing all the benefits to report up the ownership chain to validate the decision to go digital. Our manager is beginning to understand that this move will provide operational efficiencies, will create business opportunities that didn't exist before, will allow the station to exploit its assets in ways heretofore unseen, and offer something every manager craves÷options. Over the course of a game, momentum shifts, the unexpected happens and management needs to have options open to it so it can deal with these issues. Digital provides those options.

The third stage is, of course, remuneration. Here, the athlete sits back and rakes in the money having made that timely decision to go digital, having hit that sweet spot and watched the ball sail over the wall while all those who failed to commit are languishing in the minor leagues.

I am aware that this analogy simplifies a very complex issue, but I think that is what is required in our business to break through the torpor that has developed over the last couple of years. Simplify the issues and move forward. If we do that, it seems evident that the move to digital must happen, and the sooner the better.

Part of the issue is misperception. We have been visited recently by numerous manufacturers who say they are selling plenty of digital equipment. Indeed, by some estimates half of all stations in the U.S. have either received or ordered their digital transmitters. Some recent surveys have erroneously reported a far smaller number, but if you talk to the transmitter, tower and antenna people, they are deeply back-ordered.

There are always naysayers. I was heavily involved in the launch of the DVD format, having created the first conference to deal with the issues that needed to be resolved and having founded a magazine called Medialine (www.medialinenews.com, still owned by our parent, United Entertainment Media) that covers that part of the industry. Many said it wouldnât work, you canât record on it, people wonât ever switch from the beloved VHS, there was no content so why buy the machines. A couple years later, DVD was by far the most successful consumer electronics product launch ever. In history.

So I ignore the naysayers because I believe that our professional, hard working industry has what it takes to make the digital transition happen. We have taken a leadership role in print while others have done so on the equipment side and at the station level. It's time for everyone else to join in. Let's play ball!