Looking Past 2009

As the broadcast industry gears up for NAB, questions swirl around the RF segment of the industry. The deadline is coming and the first question is: how many stations will meet it? On the heels of that question, manufacturers are listening to equally ominous questions.

Key for all RF manufacturers is this question: What will they sell when the DTV transition is complete? 2009 is too early to see a transmitter replacement market, because it’s been just about 10 years since the first stations began the conversion. Problem is, transmitters and related equipment have been so much improved that the life expectancy of the equipment, especially transmitters, rests now at about 20 years.

Early on, Harris calculated that RF DTV expenditures would range between $1 to $1.2 billion dollars. They’re now figuring that about one-third of that amount is still waiting to be invested.

From the beginning of the DTV mandate, stations questioned how many TV sets were being sold, and how long it would be before enough eyes were watching DTV to make transmission worthwhile. Fortunately for everyone, set sales have been on the rise. Stations are now reporting that when they shut down their DTV service temporarily, the phone starts ringing.

Meanwhile, manufacturers are indicating that sales in recent times have been very good, partly because stations are buying to maximize power, building out low power transmitters, converting analog to DTV transmitters, paying attention to international sales and working with stations who are shifting their transmitters into major markets.

Fortunately, the NAB in recent years has become a popular venue for transmission, acquisition and processing equipment. Also fortunate for transmitter manufacturers, there are several offshore pockets that are not currently embarked on the shift to digital. Analog still reigns in places such as Central and South America, Asia and Africa. And despite popular opinion, Europe is not as far along with DTV as many had either suspected or hoped, especially in the new republics.

What’s more, cable TV has yet to flex its muscles the way it has in North America, making multi-channel enticing.

In Canada and Mexico, conversion is based mainly on those border cities that need to be compatible with current U.S. technology. On the international side of the business, Harris has completed a major media network in Iraq that includes newspapers, radio and TV stations.

Basically, what you see is what you get in the RF booths this year. Yes, the booths will look familiar, but there are only a few new products here and there. Nothing really monumental, nothing revolutionary.

What you will see that’s new are the demos and spotlights on mobile TV.

It’s still a technology looking for a home, as far as broadcast television is concerned. As it stands now, much of what will appear on cell phones is likely to be national content, unless local stations can figure out how to make a profit (which means that the cell carriers see value in your local content—don’t call them...they’ll call you). Traditionally, broadcasters have been content to offer traditional content. What’s more, involvement in mobile TV would quickly translate to management decisions as to what services to offer and how to turn a profit.

And, as one manufacturer put it, “I’m not sure I want to watch a Super Bowl on a display no larger than a postage stamp.” Nevertheless, the NAB exhibits and will be an ideal setting to test the waters with broadcasters. They’ll also be treated again to on-air DTV demos.

A few years ago it became obvious that RF manufacturers were scaling back on their NAB expenses. You can no longer count on being fed at lavish customer parties and hospitality suites. Fortunately, the annual E2V party, where station engineers and RF manufacturers have gathered for a night of camaraderie and entertainment, will be on tap once again.

Down the aisles and in the booths, exhibitors will report that 2005 was a good year. And, as Jim Adamson of Larcan puts it, “It’s time to turn the tables!”

The feeling has been that as stations socked more and more money into RF, they had less and less to put down on acquisition, processing and routing equipment. Now, with a large number of stations already recovering from their RF investments, money will become available for the products that will create the content needed for the next move forward in DTV.

Editor’s Note: A special note of appreciation is due to Axcera, Ai (Acrodyne), DMT USA, E2V, Harris, Larcan and Thales for their input to this article.

Ron Merrell is the executive editor.