In my memory, the first great public crack in the DTV wall of illusion came in early 1998 at Sony's pre-NAB press conference in New York City. Sony's chief technology officer, Peter Dare, stunned his corporate colleagues by admitting to the press there were "pitfalls" in a DTV technology that was "not quite there yet."
Until that day, DTV had been sold as a picture-perfect technology – one that would energize and reinvigorate both television broadcasters and their viewers.
Dare burst the balloon of hype. Among the unresolved issues he listed were two that would loom high in the future: incompatibilities between broadcast and cable television systems, and reception problems without an outdoor antenna.
Sony's PR apparatus went into hyperventilation over Dare's candid remarks. Though the Sony executive garnered high respect from his engineering colleagues for his rare honestly about DTV's faults, Dare soon went into a sort of public relations exile at Sony for months to follow.
Today, Peter Dare stands more than vindicated. By having the guts to tell the truth as he saw it, he remains one of the few genuinely noble characters to emerge from the muddy mess now referred to in polite company as "the DTV transition."
Though many others have challenged the soundness of DTV technology since Dare's speech, it would be 2001 before widespread skepticism about the state of digital broadcasting played out in public among the industry's top executives.
At one media conference after another this year, broadcast DTV has been dissed by simple omission from the discussion. To the major media players DTV – by its very definition – is now the product of cable or satellite, not broadcasters.
When pressed on the issue, more than one executive has derisively asked whether anyone actually believes that hordes of Americans will climb onto their rooftops – just as in the 1950s – to install an antenna in order to receive their local DTV station.
It's not just an issue anymore of whether terrestrial DTV can be made to work well. Now there's a question as to whether free, over-the-air broadcasting can remain a viable business in a multichannel pay television environment where the vast majority of viewers choose to pay for their entertainment programming.
When asked at the recent National Cable and Telecommunications show whether AOL Time Warner might be interested in acquiring a major broadcast network, CEO Gerald Levin panned the idea, expressing doubt as to future prospects for the broadcasting industry itself.
"To be sure, the past is behind [broadcasters]. You can't exist in this modern era with a single revenue stream," Levin, a proponent of the subscription TV business model, told CNN's Larry King.
WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN
Doubt is not limited to broadcast industry competitors. At a press event in April, FCC Chairman Michael Powell – noting that 85 percent of TV households now receive cable or satellite television – speculated what might happen when that figure moves higher.
"If 100 percent of Americans don't get free, over-the-air TV, what are we protecting?" the FCC chairman asked reporters.
At a recent industry event, FCC Mass Media Bureau chief Roy Stewart noted that the spectrum now used by broadcasters is not a perpetual inheritance. "I tell the broadcasters that you ought to start thinking about what you are going to do if that [pay TV penetration] number gets higher, and what you can do to be more innovative," Stewart said.
So far, foot-dragging and intransigence – rather than innovation – has been the hallmark of the broadcast DTV movement. The continuing quagmire has raised the possibility of the previously unthinkable: that broadcasters are now in danger of eventually losing all their spectrum.
In a recent issue of Multichannel News, an article headlined "Could TV Stations Lose Their Spectrum?" speculated on a "doomsday scenario" that could mean the end of over-the-air free TV within a decade. As the number of pay television subscribers moves toward 90 percent or higher, writer Ted Hearn conjectured Congress and FCC could decide that the TV spectrum is more valuable in the hands of companies other than broadcasters.
Perhaps that's a reason the NAB TV Board recently decided against requesting an FCC extension of the May 2002 deadline for smaller stations to begin DTV service. It could be that the broadcast lobbyists think they should conserve their energy for the uphill political fight to force dual-signal must-carry on cable operators.
After all, forcing the broadcasters' signals on unwilling cable operators might be the only answer to those unresolved issues cited by Peter Dare in 1998. How else do you solve those pesky problems of DTV/cable interoperability and the public's lack of enthusiasm to install rooftop antennas for DTV reception?
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Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.