DTV decade of struggles

When does a new decade begin? That's now a hotly debated topic, but why? The argument is whether it begins with the year ending in “0” or ending in “1.” Put me down in the year ending “0” camp. Think about it. Doesn't it seem more natural to look at, say, the decade of the 1990s as beginning Jan. 1, 1990, as opposed to Jan. 1, 1991? If it didn't start until 1991, then it didn't end until Dec. 31, 2000. Did anyone really consider the year 2000 as the last decade of the ‘90s? If you are still not convinced, just grant me license, and come along for the ride. You will still have a whole year to think about your own retrospective.

8-VSB trumps COFDM

Although now clearly successful, the DTV transition in the United States endured a decade of struggles. As we entered the decade, the dot-com bubble was still growing. It was that pre-9/11 era of “peace dividends,” federal budget surpluses and abounding optimism. In the television marketplace, station penetration and consumer adoption rate forecasts for digital television and HDTV were aggressive, perhaps overly so, initially, in light of large-screen HD receiver prices approaching five figures. On the technical front, the DTV standards war was over, but the battles continued to rage.

The modified ATSC recommendation for DTV, which embraced an 8-VSB modulation scheme, was adopted by the FCC in December 1996. Following the infamous comparative DTV reception tests in Baltimore, where COFDM bested 8-VSB, the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology took yet another look, and in September 1999, reaffirmed its support for 8-VSB. Even with this initial adoption and subsequent reaffirmation, as the new decade began, the adherents of COFDM continued to battle on. Eventually, the combination of more DTV signals coming on-air and consumers purchasing DTV receivers resulted in 8-VSB achieving a level of infrastructure critical mass such that the proponents of COFDM realized it could not be overturned. Continuing development in ATSC tuner chips yielding marked improvements in signal reception played an important role as well. Yet, even today, from time to time you can read the laments of COFDM diehards on the various technical forums.

DTV sets for everyone

Another seemingly looming problem was set pricing. Early in the decade, HDTV set prices were astronomical compared with inexpensive analog receivers. DTV naysayers argued that the expense of the core receiver and ATSC tuner technology coupled with exorbitant licensing fees doomed affordability for the masses. They believed inexpensive television receivers would be a thing of the past, and portables? Forget it! There simply would be no affordable portable receivers. What a difference a decade makes! Now, at the start of the new decade, a 46in 1080p, 120Hz receiver can be purchased for $799 and a 22in 720p receiver for $229. And what about those inexpensive portables doomed for extinction? A 7in portable DTV receiver can today be purchased for the munificent sum of $89, which by the way is $72 in year 2000 dollars.

The nonevent transition

Originally, by May 1, 2002, all commercial stations were required to be transmitting on their digital channel followed by all public stations by May 1, 2003, and analog was to be gone for good in 2006. For many reasons, it didn't happen. But eventually, after being rescheduled, it did. On June 12, 2009, analog ended, and the great switchover to digital occurred. With 64 million DTV converter coupons issued and despite only 35 million redeemed, DTV arrived as a nonevent. The latest projections indicate that by the end of this year, three-quarters of all households will be equipped with one or more HDTV sets.

Up next: 3-D

As we arrive at the cusp of the new decade, and with DTV and HDTV already taken for granted, the next new technology is preparing to move to center stage. Broadcasters with trepidation, set manufacturers with anticipation and the poor unknowing consumer are about to transition from the DTV era to the 3-D era. Never mind what you've been told; necessity is not the mother of invention. Revenue generation is. Otherwise, we would still be crowded around that tiny 10in black-and-white CRT in the massive wooden cabinet.

When it comes to the concept of decades, the DTV decade was a game changer. It opened the digital door to the new television technologies to come, and as it slowly fades, a new 3-D decade is beginning to take shape. So, get ready for literally an eye-popping ride for the next 10 years. And, who knows? If the good Lord and my editor cooperate, in 10 years time I may be ushering it out, and the new decade (of holographic video?) in.

Anthony R. Gargano is a consultant and former industry executive.

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