What’s Next? DTV Transition Experts Look Forward

As far as the DTV transition goes, we’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that stations as a whole are well on their way to being on-air as group. In fact, some have been transmitting DTV for years. The bad news is that the transition comes just as other media outlets such as broadband and phone comp

As far as the DTV transition goes, we’ve got good news and bad news.

The good news is that stations as a whole are well on their way to being on-air as group. In fact, some have been transmitting DTV for years.

The bad news is that the transition comes just as other media outlets such as broadband and phone company initiatives to develop their own flavor of “cable TV” threaten to dilute the idea of a mass audience for all but a handful of television programs. Plus, while the number of DTV broadcasters is promising, there is concern that small stations that are barely profitable now may just go dark.

Axcera’s Richard Schwartz, vice president of marketing and product management, observed, “The vast majority of broadcasters are currently on the air with a DTV signal covering at least their city of license [with] about 60 percent of these stations operating at full licensed power. We are seeing steady growth in this number each month as we approach the 2009 deadline, with many broadcasters upgrading their facilities to higher power transmitter systems allowing them to maximize their ERP [effective radiated power].”

Concurring with the assessment is Acrodyne’s (Ai) Mark Polovick, vice president of sales and marketing. “We are finding more and more smaller markets deciding on high power DTV transmitter purchases,” he said. “Ai is continuing to work with major broadcast group’s phase in deployments as they are finishing their DTV build out.

“Some stations will buy and install as late as 2008 and 2009 due to delays with tower or building issues. Other groups have said they are developing backup transmitter deployment plans to begin in 2007. Many groups are committing to over-the-air delivery in a big way.”

The number of DTV viewers remains a challenge. Plus, other media are competing with broadcast television with different ways to get entertainment into the home. This includes broadband channels, the Internet, new services from the phone company and an increasing bevy of new cable networks vying for the same number of eyeballs.

One way broadcasters are trying to compete is by multicasting several channels in their DTV spectrum. With several pieces of the pie, they increase their number of revenue streams.

Is the industry preparing itself for a drop in viewership? “I think it is,” said Mike Kirk, vice president of commercial and industrial at e2v Technologies. “Stations are carrying alternative services and are now trying to get content. When a broadcaster is not showing HD, they can do 4 SD channels.”

The issue for many broadcasters is where they’re going to get content for the extra channels and at what price. Kirk observed that for some broadcasters, this will be easy. “You hear about Disney [ABC’s owner] sending down a digital channel with ABC News, a [second] with their ABC affiliate, a [third] with the Disney Channel, and a [fourth] with an ESPN channel... all down one signal,” he said.

However, not every station has as many options as ABC—and some broadcasters may struggle to show four streams of compelling content at an affordable price. And though many cable networks want to be carried on the broadcast spectrum, they also want to be paid by those same broadcasters for giving over their service. In some ways, the industry is defeating its own purposes.

This could result in less compelling content on the extra digital channels and give DTV’s multicasting the “second-tier status” UHF stations used to struggle with in the 1970s when all UHF channels competed on a second dial. Often the UHF content wasn’t as compelling as that of VHF, and it was harder to get to before the advent of the remote control.

The upside of the additional content is more choices for consumers and a potential growth period. However, viewers are on the go more often than before, so transmitting to portable television devices is a necessary consideration.

Ai’s Ellen Rainey said AVSB is emerging as an acceptable portable and mobile transmission standard. “There was a very successful demo on this at the CES Show in January,” said Rainey. “We’re not aware of any other solution that achieves the same level of performance for AVSB for portable and mobile at this time.”

Polovick added that as AVSB and other improvements in the ATSC standard are rolled out, the need for better coverage will drive the requirement for higher power transmitters. “New business models for over-the-air reception are now emerging based on portability and mobility,” he said. “These new personal devices have small, low-efficiency receiving antennas and thus require much higher power transmitters if they are to be reached reliably. A mobile and portable ATSC standard improvement is what the over-the-air TV business must have to compete.”

Provided the content is compelling, portable TV may be the next “big thing” in television. Right now, live sports appears to be the content frontrunner in that category; however, broadcasters will need to find something beyond sports to drive viewers to their medium in a portable environment.

Polovick said Ai is confident that AVSB or other portable solutions under development will “drive the market in the near future. Today’s broadcaster must evolve into a leader in the delivery of video entertainment and information to personal portable devices and moving vehicles.”

For the RF industry, this means more broadcasters upgrading to higher power and newer technologies. “In Europe, the need for better signal saturation to reach small portable devices seems to be driving transmitter power requirements to higher levels than originally anticipated,” Polovick observed. “We expect a similar effect here in the U.S.”

Some broadcasters are trying to save money by repurposing some of their gear. In the UHF band, for example, Kirk said that many groups are looking at sharing resources between stations as they turn off their analog signals.

“You can repurpose the [analog] amplifier but you’ll need a new exciter. You can retune the IOT for the new channel and you’re left needing to put on a new waveguide system for the antenna,” he explained.

Broadcasters are looking to save money by using their older analog amplifiers as part of a standby DTV transmission system, Kirk said. “You don’t want to buy something when you don’t need to,” he noted.

Beyond needing a new transmission system and content are the issues of operating capital and viewer awareness. Entire facilities need to be upgraded to digital and/or HD plants.

“One challenge for broadcasters today,” said Schwartz, “is their need to invest in infrastructure and operating expenses for DTV when the number of over-the-air DTV viewers is relatively small. We are hopeful that the efforts of the NAB’s newly formed DTV transition team will increase consumer awareness of digital television and improve this situation in the near future.”

The FCC has set up a public education website for the DTV transition (www.dtv.gov). Broadcasters would do well to start promoting it and educating the public as soon as possible, similar to the way radio stations are advertising HD radio.

Television has new media competing for viewers, newer phone-company-based services on the horizon, and an analog shutoff deadline looming. Despite viewers having more choices seemingly by the day, over-the-air broadcasters still have the bulk of the audience. We have the ability to be our own best promoters.

Joseph Maar is a veteran industry executive, producer and director. Contact him at JosephMaar@aol.com.