Ex-Broadcast Executive Launches OTA Multichannel Service

USDTV, the new multichannel over-the-air TV service in Utah is being rolled out by a veteran TV executive who exemplifies the old saw, "never say die."

Steve Lindsley, the CEO of USDTV, quietly launched the service less than two years after a similarly conceived start-up that he headed went south.

USDTV was recently launched in the Salt Lake City area to around 300 subscribers, according to published reports. The service offers 30 channels, including ESPN, Disney and Lifetime and five local HD broadcast feeds, for $19.95 a month.

The set-tops are from Hisense, Ltd of China, which is underwriting the manufacturing of the first 100,000 boxes to the tune of $15 million. Those boxes are currently on sale at the Salt Lake-area Wal-Mart store, which Hisense envisions as a precursor to nationwide distribution. The set-top maker told China Daily that "its digital products could be distributed via thousands of Wal-Mart outlets in the United States." Hisense also told the publication it had an agreement to crank out 400,000 boxes a year for USDTV over an unspecified period.

One of the biggest questions raised by the launch of an OTA pay service is whether or not reception will be reliable enough to sustain a business. A major concern about digital broadcast television is that poor reception means no reception. Although Lindsley and Co. haven't talked openly about USDTV's reception technology, CES crawlers did note that the start-up shared a booth with ATI at the show.

Also, observers note, the USDTV roll-out is starting in the most reception friendly markets, including Las Vegas, where Sinclair will provide 15 Mbps of KFBT's digital bandwidth for tests.

"You will notice the markets that he's choosing for this service don't have the major encumbrances of an urban center," said a Sinclair executive. "We can spare 15 megabits."

Sinclair has no contractual arrangement with USDTV, he said.

Sinclair was also in on the tests for WOW-TV, Lindsley's previous over-the-air digital TV business incarnation. Also based in Utah, WOW-TV was predicated on set-top boxes designed to enable NTSC TV sets to receive OTA digital signals in addition to being cable and DBS compatible.

WOW boasted multiple interactive features and content-on-demand, and had an investor line-up that included Zions Bank, OpenTV and NFL Quarterback Steve Young.

The WOW box featured interactive software from Advanced Digital Broadcast in Taiwan, with receivers from STMicroelectronics of South Jordan, Utah -- the same Salt Lake City suburb where WOW was based. In early-2001, Lindsley announced that about 30 WOW set-tops would be tested in the Salt Lake City area that summer. Lindsley intended to formally roll out WOW for the 2002 Winter Olympics; the idea being, that WOW could provide back-stories and interactive features unavailable anywhere else. At the time, Lindsley told reporters that he expected WOW to do a full-fledged launch of 2 million units in July of 2002.

Then WOW disappeared.

"It was because of a lack of a number of tools," said the Sinclair executive, who was familiar with the WOW tests. "The loading of the program guide was an impossibility. It was manually intensive. You had to format, type in and push all this stuff forward."

Since the program guide was at the core of the other interactive services, WOW's team had to go back to the drawing board.

USDTV is a different animal than WOW, in that it doesn't offer all the interactive stuff, and the PSIP capabilities have become more sophisticated, the Sinclair executive said.
Also, this time, the roll-out started before the fanfare.