The market has spoken

Great ideas from many companies emerged as what we know as the ATSC''s DTV standards. But, like all standards allowing too much flexibility, this one has been doomed to failure.

The market has spoken

By Paul McGoldrick

Great ideas from many companies emerged as what we know as the ATSC''s DTV standards. But, like all standards allowing too much flexibility, this one has been doomed to failure. To begin, we have no consistent agreement on which of the toolbox elements will be used; then, we have spotty implementation; and we still have limited terrestrial transmissions. And there is absolutely no agreement on whether an HDTV standard is an industry goal.

HDTV has found some niches. The HDTV production of Lucas'' Attack of the Clones clearly showed that Hollywood can and will use the 24 frame rate standards despite the fact that the motion artifacts continue to be as bad as film. The savings in being able to view work immediately will reduce takes and eliminate most of the retakes that have been previously required after rushes were reviewed.

The clear lesson from most of the rest of the world is that our drive should have been, and should continue to be, to push for DTV as a whole rather than HDTV in particular. Mr. and Mrs. Joe Public are still confused about DTV and HDTV, as are newspaper review writers, consumers'' associations and the majority of sales associates at most consumer stores.

The BBC''s R&D department published a white paper early in August 2002 entitled “Spectrum Matters in the All-Digital Future,” the written version of a paper presented at BroadcastAsia2002 by Thomas Everest. One of the fascinating things to come out of this look at the future includes the results of a survey conducted by the BBC to help get ready for frequency re-planning conferences in 2004 and 2005.

Twenty-one countries responded to the survey with opinions from governments, broadcasters, manufacturers and others. In the types of service that were predicted, a medium to high priority was returned by over 80 percent for traditional TV, 95 percent for widescreen TV, 45 percent for audio only, about 90 percent for data, 80 percent for text, over 90 percent for IP-based services and just under 80 percent for Internet TV. But the real showstopper is that the medium and high priority for HDTV was under 35 percent, with less than 10 percent in the high grouping.

These results are close to the expectations of the Joe Public family — which recently connected its new DVD player using the RF output: traditional TV and widescreen first, please. And the other results are very much like those of the broadcasters looking to use their “free” spectrum for other purposes with IP, text and data repeatedly being mentioned as possible business models.

These results may be why the BBC recently announced that its spectrum would be used in the future for five services that would be aimed at smaller, more focused demographics than the current two general-interest services. That decision effectively kills HDTV for the long-term future, and if you ask European broadcasters where HDTV fits into their world they will, in general, respond that they don''t see it as a service to be delivered with a terrestrial system.

Another interesting fact to emanate from this 21-country viewpoint is the importance that is attached to portable and mobile operation. “Portable,” in the European sense, is a receiver that has its own simple antenna, as compared to a fixed antenna (always considered to be at a height of 33 feet) with a feeder down to the receiver. All the respondents considered it a high or medium priority to have successful portable reception, while fewer, about 80 percent, took the same position on both fixed antenna reception and mobile reception (defined as a simple antenna at 5 feet above the ground). If those numbers are reflected back to the United States as to what consumers here really want in their viewing habits, then 8-VSB transmission would seem to be in real trouble.

Whenever the great jumps in broadcasting have taken place, the standards were imposed by the FCC, before it lost its nerve in the face of lawsuits. NTSC, 525-line monochrome and FM were all fixed standards not to be played with by the individual provider. Voluntary standards like AM stereo were a disaster — as IBOC may be unless someone gets tough — and Table 3 (sorry, Table A3) is such a voluntary mishmash that we have become a laughingstock to countries — and large groups of countries at that — who can sit down in civilized discussions to come up with standards that fit all, but with tiny variables (like 2k or 8k FFT size), to suit each territory. The mantra for proponents of voluntary standards has been that “the market will decide.” Wake up, guys. It has. The question is whether we''re honest enough to listen.

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

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