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DTV gets Over the Hump

In 2002 the consumers learned, the equipment improved and the programming reached new heights


One year ago, the digital transition seemed stuck in a rut. Lawmakers were unwilling to intervene. The cable, production and consumer electronics industries accused one another of dragging their feet. The economy was sour and stations were spending millions to produce DTV signals destined, it seemed, for no one. Industry cheerleaders stayed merry, but barely appeared to believe themselves.

Now, consumers have actually heard of high-definition TV. Cable channels are flashing HD versions of themselves on ultra-premium digital tiers. The economy is still a nightmare, yet high-end TV sales are robust. The cable industry and TV makers are on the verge of a compatibility agreement. The FCC has mandated digital tuners and lawmakers, still eying the return of the analog spectrum for budgetary, public safety and advanced wireless services, are threatening to use their power to get TV into the new century.

"This was a big year, and next year's going to be even bigger," said Greg Schmidt, president of LIN TV, reflecting tempered optimism now typical among broadcasters. "Everybody keeps saying, the capital expense is behind us. Well, sort of. The first big burp is."


Schmidt's group, like most, has completed build-out on most of its stations. NAB reports more than 600 DTV stations on-air in 165 markets, about half of all commercial stations. Nearly two out of three U.S. viewers can receive five or more DTV stations - although many DTV pundits scoff at the ability of all but the most tech-savvy viewers to have much success with over-the-air signals.

On the cable end, Discovery, HBO, Showtime and ESPN offer or will offer HD, which may not help broadcasters directly but should spur the sale of HDTVs.

Broadcasters and networks, led by CBS, continue to increase the portion of programming available in high definition beyond isolated showcases such as "The Tonight Show" and "The Young and the Restless." In 2003, ABC staple "Monday Night Football" will be in HD, along with Super Bowl XXXVII, now that the TV event of the year has been wrested back from Fox and its 420p "enhanced" format.

"If we really step back and look at the year 2002, it's been tremendous for HD in the marketplace, " said John Taylor, spokesman for Zenith. "For a long time we've been saying that the biggest barrier to DTV growth has been the lack of programming. Now we're seeing some real momentum on the programming side."

Technical advances are contributing to the improved content offerings. One of the year's most significent product launches, Thomson's Viper Filmstream camera, for example, can send raw data directly to a transportable disk array, allowing producers more processing latitude and more closely duplicating the workflow of shooting on film.

On the primetime front, HD equipment is increasingly the standard as producers future-proof their assets and find savings in film-free technology.

"To the best of our information, between August and June of this year 75 percent of all the pilots produced for the 2002-2003 season were shot in 1080/24P high definition," Andrew Stucker of Sony's Business Development Content Creation Group told an editing-equipment confab in November. This fall, 33 percent of primetime network programming was produced in that format. Some Fox sitcoms saved around $35,000 per half-hour episode by switching from film to tape, he said.

Leon Silverman, executive VP of Los Angeles post house LaserPacific Media, has also seen tape work for sitcoms, though less so for dramas.

"While we've seen some experiementation, I'm not sure creators of high-quality drama are convinced that videotape is the best way to shoot their shows," he says.

The film-vs.-24P debate, he says, is largely a construct of the trade press. His company works with plenty of film, with most of its finished products in 24P high definition.

The evolution of digital tools, he says, has made things not just faster and in some cases cheaper but also improved the creative process.

"The tools are a bunch of stuff that plugs into the wall, but when you put them in the hands of creative people, who can understand how to extend the tools past maybe even their original designers' intent, then in fact these become very powerful", Silverman says.


The bad news for broadcasters remains a mixed signal on consumer acceptance of their product. Sure, cable is advancing the technology, rolling out HD add-ons market by market, and satellite offers HDTV in nearly every square inch of the country. But the debate over the 8-VSB over-the-air technology is not going away.

DTV boosters claim that 8-VSB's long-criticized reception problems are on their way out. Look at the early history of analog television, they say. Decades after its introduction, viewers were still tweaking rooftop antennas and putting up with ghosts and static.

"Everybody has this myth that NTSC was receivable indoors in most homes, and it was not," says Schmidt. "Most people had outdoor antennas and did not receive all the channels."

"I think it's fair to say that the problems encountered early on in the digital transition in some of those early-generation receivers are long behind us now," says Taylor. "Performance, through continual evolution of technology has continued to improve."

What's more, chips are now in use that process both 8-VSB and cable's QAM technology, heralding the day when a single tuner works for both broadcast and cable, presumably at a lower cost than today.

But 8-VSB advocates and skeptics still offer radically different perspectives on the technology.

"Does it work? For indoor reception? The answer is no, it still doesn't work," says Mark Hyman, spokesman for Sinclair Broadcast Group and a longtime critic of 8-VSB. "So they can talk about improvements all day long, but it still doesn't work."

Despite DTV manufacturers' rosy reports of DTV sales, they too admit that most people buying the top TVs plug them in to cable or a DVD player. CEA spokesman Jeff Joseph does not contest claims that fewer than 250,000 televisions with DTV tuners are in America's living rooms.

Others point out that the transition to DTV is far more complicated than the transition to color a half-century ago, and one shouldn't expect too much just five years after the first DTV broadcasts.

"We're still dealing with a transmission system that was not adequately field-tested before it was rolled out, to put it mildly," says Schmidt. "We have a lot to work on still and to make sure that we get it right"

"Digital is different than analog," says David Elliott, a New Jersey-based consultant who spent 30 years with ABC, the last decade working on DTV. "Anybody who's moved from an analog cellphone to a digital cellphone understands that, especially during the early rollout."

Elliott also points to improvements in the past year. Linx Electronics introduced its ghost-canceling receiver system, for example, and the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) published enhancements to its standard to allow more flexibility for broadcasters.

"There are whole new technologies that are being brought into market in the next year or two that pose real possibilities in terms of improving reception," Elliott says. "There's been a tremendous amount of movement this past year, probably more movement over this past year, at least more visible movement, than any previous year since the adoption of the standard originally [in 1987]."


Their signals may be dangling useless in the air as small groups of technoids move their antennas around the room, but broadcasters had cause for celebration in 2002. One of their wishes, a mandate to include DTV tuners in new TV sets, became a reality - although the CEA has challenged the notion in federal court and Sinclair has filed a petition with the FCC to require performance standards for such tuners.

And just days before NAB2002, FCC Chairman Michael Powell, under pressure to kick-start the DTV transition, called on all industries involved to do their part.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) frightened broadcasters with a draft DTV bill that threatens a 2007 shutoff of analog broadcasting, rendering hundreds of millions of TVs useless (or at least useless without external receivers, and presumably devoid of DTV's promised advantages). With the recent uptick in interest in spectrum for public-safety uses, that deadline could end up being a blunt reality.

Yet most observers credit Tauzin for his engagement on the DTV issue. He sponsored roundtable discussions among the industry, and some say his threats spurred progress on issues like plug-and-play compatibility and copy protection. Although makers of TVs and computers are still at war with Hollywood on how to best protect material from piracy, the progress between consumer electronics manufacturers and the cable industry shows promise.

Panasonic announced the first PHILA (POD [point-of-deployment module]-Host Interface License Agreement) by a television maker in October and could have a set ready for external security attachments ready next year. That's a Congressional goal and a step toward universal cable compatibility. Separately, the manufacturers and the cable industry at press time were said to be on the verge of an agreement to bring universal plug-and-play to a broader swath of companies.

"This is an agreement that's been a long time coming - not because of technical issues, but because of business issues," Elliott says. "The issue is who's really controlling the gateway of the DTV signal into the house. And people see that that is a potential moneymaker".

HDTV IN 2003

Many involved in DTV have said for years that the obstacles have been policy and financial issues, not technical constraints. If the CEA and cable had come up with their impending agreement years ago, the transition would be years ahead. And for broadcasters, the absence of mandatory dual digital-analog carriage of their signals on cable during the transition, and of mandatory carriage of multicast streams down the road, remain major obstacles.

Among the promises of the DTV future is interactivity, which ATSC pushed forward with publication of its DASE standard, a software environment for interactive TV, with as-yet undreamed applications ahead.

"It's analog thinking to think you've got a standard and to freeze it forever," says ATSC President Mark Richer. "One of the great things about digital technology is you can continue to advance it and add new functions and features, just like the computer industry; hopefully we'll do it better than that."