Viewers' Voice Is Missing In the DTV Mess

Thomson Multimedia has just added a new feature - a built-in DVD player - to four widescreen models in its upcoming line of premium RCA Scenium digital television sets.

The electronics manufacturer is finally hip to a stark reality: If you're going to charge several thousand dollars for a stunning new digital display for a home theater, you'd better enable it with something to watch.

"For the digital transition to be successful, we need content," said Thomson marketing executive Michael D. O'Hara. "Without content this transition will stall. We are waiting for the next big quantum leap in content."

O'Hara reels off a retailer's laundry list of essential items to jump-start the stalled DTV scene: More digital stations on the air; more stations that carry HD programming; more HD movies, sports and specialty programs; and all network programming in HD.

While the sales of digital sets are steadily growing, potential buyers are starting to zero in on what they can watch. If you are willing to pay the price, reliable sources of HD programming are now available on a few channels delivered by satellite and some cable systems. A sprinkling of HD programming is available over the air in some major cities, if you are lucky enough to receive the signal. Not a very compelling list of pluses for a salesman trying nail a multi-thousand-dollar home theater sale.

So in most cases, it comes down to the tried-and-true DVD. Its popularity is now the real driver of digital television. On the front line of TV retail marketing, DVDs have become the standard source of in-store digital programming simply because there is nothing else to watch.

Some larger dealers have satellite and cable feeds or other sources of HD programming for demo, but few - if any - depend on their local broadcasters to sell the new sets. Broadcast feeds represent a "lack of consistent content," said O'Hara.

Many potential HDTV set buyers, O'Hara noted, are basing their purchasing decision on the anticipation -fueled by positive publicity - that over-the-air HDTV is going to be widely available soon.

But what if all the hype never becomes reality? What happens to the purchaser of an expensive widescreen TV who gets the unit home and finds that, for whatever reason, he or she cannot receive a reliable source of premium programming. "That's a dealer issue," O'Hara said curtly, stating there's no Thomson policy on returns. "It's on an account-by-account basis."


For home viewers, the missing voice in the DTV transition, it all comes down to the ancient wisdom: Let the buyer beware. TV set customers are being asked to trust the endless string of positive "coming soon" statements on DTV from such entities as the FCC, NAB, CEA and a group of TV set manufacturers desperate to make next quarter's sales figures.

Some mass media outlets are shaping the public perception while missing the big DTV picture. As DTV deadlines bear down on stations, there are the sob stories about small broadcasters who can't afford to pay for the "government mandate" to convert to DTV. A July 16 feature in USA Today took the cake, stating that federal officials ordered the national conversion from analog to digital TV in 1997 and nobody seemed to consider the plight of smaller stations.

The article contained the odd warning from NAB that consumers may lose in the rush to DTV. Stations scrounging for cash "have to cut back on news or services to a community to fulfill a government mandate," Eddie Fritts, NAB chief executive, was quoted in the USA Today article. "That's just wrong."

Whoa...what a rewrite of history! Was it not true that NAB and its broadcaster members actually came up with the idea for a transition to HDTV (later downsized to DTV)? The transition, I recall, was going to save over-the-air broadcasters, not hurt them. Didn't NAB help write the laws Congress passed in 1996 that created the transition plan and set the deadlines to move the over-the-air broadcasters to digital? Could it be the problems with DTV today were not created by the government, but by the broadcast industry itself? Reporters writing about DTV owe their readers in the general public some objective context to this complex story.

I don't have the space to go into the history here, but if you want to understand how the industry got into this mess, read Joel Brinkley's excellent 1997 book "Defining Vision: The Battle for the Future of Television," (Harcourt Brace & Company, ISBN 0-15-100087-5).


Another factor slowing a broadcast DTV transition is copyright protection of premium content. Proposals in Congress to alter personal computers to protect large content holders, such as motion picture studios, once again ignore viewer rights over the desires of industry lobbyists.

"The industry-sponsored anti-piracy proposals (in Congress) seem to start from the premise that all consumers are thieves and sets out to develop a hardwired anti-theft system that destroys consumers' ability to make fair use of the programming coming into their homes," said Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America.

Add to that the fundamental fairness in forcing consumers to purchase TV receivers with integrated off-air tuners in an era when most households access their television from pay-TV services.

"Between 85 and 90 percent of TV households will not need a digital tuner because they use cable or satellite transmissions, yet (FCC) Chairman Powell wants half of all TV sets sold to have such a tuner by 2004," said Cooper. "This would be an unnecessary and wasteful expense, especially on a short time frame. Under this scenario, consumers wishing to buy a television are forced to pay extra for equipment they may not need.

"Even those households that do not take satellite or cable and might actually use a tuner would only have digital programming to watch about two hours per day. In half the markets in the country, there would be nothing to watch. The broadcasters, who were given a valuable gift of spectrum, have failed to live up to their part of the bargain and produce the programming. To ask the public, which received nothing for the grant of spectrum to pay again by forcing them to purchase more expensive TVs that are far less useful is an outrage."

The attempt to move over-the-air, non-subscription broadcast television to a digital platform is shaping up to be a disastrous blame game that has served to divert attention from years of corporate/government missteps and greed. It's a transition that consumers never asked for and may not even want.

As with so many overhyped technologies in recent years, the time is overdue for a realistic re-evaluation of the digital transition. In doing so, consumers - since their publicly owned spectrum and hard-earned dollars are at stake - should at least have a say-so in whether or not it's worth bailing out what's fast becoming a failed, obsolete idea.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.