Today, 165 stations are on-the-air with digital television. These stations are located in 57 markets covering 65 percent of American households. Considering these numbers, time is running short. The deadline for over 1200 commercial broadcasters is only 16 months out. With fewer than 200 stations in compliance today, this schedule is aggressive to say the least, suggesting a build-out rate of 65 units per month. The impact of this schedule will be felt in the manufacturing sector, the rigging community and finally the broadcaster. From a manufacturing standpoint, capacity is limited. From a rigging standpoint, there are only a limited number of crews qualified to work on tall towers with antennas that can weigh several thousand pounds. Waiting for the right or convenient time to purchase broadcast equipment can result in the broadcaster missing the mandated deadline.
Until now, the broadcaster has had a number of reasons for not aggressively completing the transition to digital. Unknowns such as the modulation scheme, changes at the FCC resulting from a new administration, the lack of a firm business plan to make DTV profitable, first-generation technology, lack of programming, a lack of DTV sets at a reasonable price and a lack of funding budgeted for the change have all been factored into the broadcasters' decision-making process. The truth is, as time goes on each one of the above arguments is further weakened. Soon there should no longer be any question as to which modulation scheme will "the" modulation scheme. The election is complete and the makeup of the FCC can be reasonably predicted. Business plans will materialize when operations force the issue. Second- and third-generation studio, transmitter and consumer electronic equipment is in the market today. One major network is simulcasting the majority of all new prime-time programming in DTV and set prices are coming down (although slowly). Last but not least, January brings about a new budget cycle for the majority of stations. Until the networks and the individual broadcaster truly embrace the idea of DTV, the consumer will not.
March 6, 2001, should prove to be a very interesting day for the broadcast industry. This is the day in which the Channel 60-69 spectrum will be auctioned off. Should this auction generate significant revenue, as it is expected to, this would force the issue of maintaining on-air deadlines as well as the 2006 deadline to vacate the spectrum currently used for analog broadcasting.
Today's environment should be viewed as an opportunity for change, an opportunity to catch up with the technological advances taking place around us. This change can be in the form of a greater offering of services by the broadcaster as a result of this technology or even a change in the implementation model from a stand-alone broadcasting plant to a shared "master-antenna system." Change of this magnitude may not be simple, but change is necessary in today's environment. If the broadcaster were to wait and see what kind of penalty may result in the failure to make the deadline, a great deal is at risk. Not only is there the risk of getting "behind the curve" of 1000 other broadcasters, but also the risk of the Commission taking action. Supply and demand will factor into the equation of both manufacturers and riggers' schedules and may work into the equation on pricing as well. In this environment, the customer is seldom the winner. If you want to make the deadline, products should be on order and rigging crews scheduled prior to NAB 2001.
The next 16 months should prove to be the most exciting, and stressful, times in the broadcast industry for all those directly involved with the transition. Decision making during this period is going to be all the more critical.