Passing the kudos

There is an organization in our industry that has continually been at the cutting edge of technology and has pushed for improvements in engineering. It is not NAB, not the Consumer Electronic Manufacturers Association (CEMA, which was re-incorporated as the Consumer Electronics Association [CEA] in November 1999), and certainly not the FCC — but those are the names that seem to get all the headlines for what they have done or, more commonly, for what they have not done. I'm talking about Maximum Service Television (MSTV). I would actually expect a good proportion of readers to ask, “Who is that?”

MSTV was launched in the early years of NTSC and has been the unparalleled leader for improvement in technical quality of television in the United States, and in that much-needed virtue: logic. It was responsible for the early propagation studies that were eventually adopted by the FCC; it pushed the industry to accept UHF transmission by getting the All-Channel Receiver Act passed in 1962; and it harangued everybody to keep UHF channels protected in 1987. It was also responsible for creating the Advanced Television Test Center in 1987.

MSTV also took the ideas of the advisory committee and co-sponsored the field-testing and analyses of the results. And then, to cap it all, the organization drafted all 12 of the joint industry pleadings for the FCC's ATV hearings and went on to develop the computer program that allows DTV/NTSC channels to be coordinated for coverage and protection against interference.

So, over a span of almost 50 years of service to the industry, MSTV has been the inventor and subsequent guardian of the FCC's Table of Assignments; has ensured that UHF broadcasters received a fair shake at audience building; kept other, greedy services off most of the UHF band; pushed the industry away from a Japanese analog HDTV system; and basically developed the model that the FCC has used for DTV channel allocations. It has done extremely well for the broadcast industry — and it deserves our recognition.

What MSTV has not been really good at is putting a spin on its own work. It just stays in the technical background, although the very public flagship demonstration station, WHD-TV in Washington, was a joint project by it and CEMA.

NAB has used MSTV's technical expertise in a number of ways over the years, sometimes lending technical credence to its own bizarre positioning. MSTV truly does represent the interests of about 400 local TV stations on technical issues. So it was not surprising that the recent reply comments to the FCC under CS Docket No. 97-80 were jointly from NAB and MSTV. Don't remember that docket? It's the ongoing battle on getting a DTV receiver a real front-end, one that can look at any RF source, whatever the medium used for delivery (that's NAB's and MSTV's point of view, and that of any sensible human looking in on the ridiculous proceedings). Even Chairman Powell, in whose agenda many of us have seen little logic, was quoted when the DTV Tuner Order was adopted as saying, “Consumers will expect their television sets to go on working in the digital world just as they do today. This includes the ability to receive broadcast signals.”

So why is this still an issue at all?

The cable-ready rules floated by the CEA and the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) ignore any kind of x-VSB modulation. Why on earth the cable industry wants to limit any cable system to not using 8-VSB or 16-VSB is beyond me. Some of us certainly expect that some systems will want to “rebroadcast” 8-VSB signals in order to save expensive remultiplexing. The CEA has openly admitted in FCC filings that adding x-VSB demodulation to a receiver is a “relatively trivial” cost.

We don't know whether the receiver manufacturers intend to include x-VSB reception or not, but clearly the cable-ready rules should spell it out. There's always the possibility, of course, that it was an intentional omission… but one would like to think that the cable industry was thinking only of its own situation and not the industry as a whole.

As has often been the case, I am in agreement with MSTV in yet another of its technical pitches. We should applaud its previous work and hope that it can find ways to succeed in its next task of mitigating the costs of converting smaller-market stations into DTV facilities.

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.

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