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Propagating Television's RF Future

Holiday wish lists will soon be joined by New Year's resolutions: You'll probably get another boring tie, and your resolution to get into shape will disappear into mounds of food. This will be followed by throwing ZZZZs at the ceiling during a football bowl game.

Still, hope springs eternal, and resolutions at least show good intentions.

During the local and presidential primaries, the broadcast industry got one item from their holiday wish list.

Then television broadcasters got a pre-holiday boost from the recent elections. Swing states may have received a few more presidential campaign dollars than the "fly-over states," but from what I saw in the Kansas City metro area, millions were spent on campaigns for everything from Dogcatcher to County Sheriff to Senator. For the six weeks leading up to the election, we saw a blizzard of political advertising.

Up in South Dakota, it was reported that the campaign dollars for and against former Democratic whip Tom Daschel came to about $50 for every voter in that state!
In canvassing RF manufacturers on the trickle-down effect the elections had on broadcast economics, I found that, yes, it was substantial. And, yes, it is having a positive effect on orders and proposals.

But, as Dick Fiore at Thales said, "That was a definite bump for broadcasters. But you don't want to base your budget forecast for 2005 on a 20% revenue increase over a two month period!"

All transmitter manufacturers told DigitalTV that sales are markedly up during the last six months. As one executive put it, "We're running out of fax paper from sending out proposals."

What's The Rush?

While cash flow has been lsteady, the elections are just part of a complicated equation for television broadcasters' wish lists and resolutions.

The deadlines for maximizing power to protect station contours from interference are upon us. That alone nudges the 2005 and 2006 capital investment budgets forward.

The complication comes from the fact that the cable and satellite operators have pushed ahead into digital, while broadcasters haven't resolved to get on with the DTV transition. Some RF executives, like Nat Ostroff at Ai, insist that if television broadcasters don't answer the challenge from cable TV and satellite delivery, it could spell the beginning of the end for over-the-air television as we know it. Stations could be relegated to delivering signals to cable operators.

"We have a winning hand," said Ostroff, "but the industry hasn't been willing to bet on it."

So maximizing power to protect contours is having a definite effect, but not just to compete against other broadcasters. The challenge is to protect the value of the station's license.

Meanwhile, DTV set sales are definitely on an upward trend. A quick stroll through a Best Buy will make it obvious that DTV-ready DLT, plasma and LCD sets are dramatically gaining showroom space and buyers (see Mark Schubin's column on page 26). And over the past two years, set prices have been steadily dropping.
Another wrinkle the industry hasn't overcome is finding ways to increase profits through digital bandwidth. Answers here are key to the entire industry.

Transmitter manufacturers feel the answer isn't to offer services similar to cable packages, mostly because stations just aren't geared up to deal 24/7 with subscribers. Perhaps a closer look at current PBS offerings is in order. (Of course, they don't need to report a profit.)

New Technology Answers

Transmitter manufacturers have kept a keen eye on the development of high efficiency IOTs. Led by E2V, L3 Communications, Thales, CMP, and others, great strides have been made in developing and then delivering high efficiency tubes.

At first, there was some reluctance to invest in these technologies, but the promise of truly substantial savings in electric bills finally pushed devices higher on TV station wish lists.

It was recently reported that two Sinclair stations in the Baltimore market using E2V's ESCIOT tubes are calculating, based on recent months on the air, that their annual savings will translate to $1 million.
Transmitter manufacturers told DigitalTV that most quotes in recent months involve high-efficiency tubes.

When asking about those low-power transmitters that allowed stations to get their feet wet in the muddy DTV waters, we found the results were mixed. Basically, some manufacturers offered something just to get a station on the air in DTV, while others were designed to migrate to high power. Migration hasn't been as prosperous as manufacturers had hoped, but RF execs report they're now seeing significant growth in requests for proposals.

Given time, the FCC's approval for some LPTV stations to increase power could also have an effect on transmitter sales. But the feeling is that these transmitters will basically be solid state models. That's largely because LPTV stations don't have the engineering expertise on board to operate and maintain big-tube transmitters. Some manufacturers, namely DMT (formerly Itelco), report that they're seeing an abrupt rise in requests for proposals from LPTV stations.

No Exit Strategy

Despite the hoopla about new technologies and competitive proposals, all manufacturers reported that customer service is still critical in this business. The concept that the transmitter manufacturer is part of a station's extended family was never more true than it is todayConsistent with RF manufacturers' history, they are first to toe the line on matching or exceeding stations needs. As the engineering staff decreases, they step up automation and auto user interface programs, self diagnostics, and redundancy. As the money crunch rears up, they design transmitters around money-saving devices that are effective enough to even offset a drop in air time ad sales.

Through these manufacturers, remote monitoring and control are offering further cost savings in engineering time and talent. At Dielectric, they've added remote SWR sensing to their already well established tower light monitoring.

As for what's turning the heads of RF manufacturers, they're very much aware of the influence the growing Hispanic markets are having on sales for everything from antennas, to towers, to transmitters. While Hispanics have typically been isolated in metro population pockets, as they prosper economically, they're moving to the suburbs. Changing markets, changes needs.

Overall, the outlook for RF manufacturers hasn't been this good for a very long time. What's more, they're expecting a rush at the maximization deadlines. Now the question is whether or not the FCC can resolve to make the deadlines stick.

The wish list ends with the desperate need for an iron-clad NTSC exit strategy.

Editor's Note: I want to give special thanks to the following for their time and patience in contributing their thoughts on the state of the transmitters market in particular and the indusdtry in general as we close out 2004: Nat Ostroff, Ai; Rich Schwartz, Axcera; Tom Newman, DMT (formerly Itelco); Dave Glidden, Harris; Jim Adamson, Larcan; and Dick Fiore, Thales.