FCC Chairman Skeptical of What Future Holds for Terrestrial TV

The shrinking number of Americans who rely on terrestrial delivery of TV signals is bringing into question its value to the viewing public and the government, according to FCC Chairman Michael Powell.
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Commission To Retain Hands-Off Approach During Transition

WASHINGTON

The shrinking number of Americans who rely on terrestrial delivery of TV signals is bringing into question its value to the viewing public and the government, according to FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

With more than 80 percent of households depending on cable or satellite, Powell said, the viability of over-the-air TV – and the FCC’s role in protecting it – are uncertain.

"Would the government’s role be different if one-third of Americans still are primarily receiving their news and entertainment information over-the-air than it would be if 95 percent are receiving it over cable? My own view is that policy and government’s role in policy would be different," Powell said at an April press briefing.

"There are real questions about the changing nature of television, both in [terms of] distribution and content, and how [the broadcast industry] is going to use its slice of the digital revolution, " Powell added. "If 100 percent of Americans don’t get free, over-the-air TV [then] what is it we are protecting?"

GOT DTV ISSUES? DON’T LOOK TO THE FCC

In the meantime, broadcasters looking to the FCC to implement a range of measures they believe are necessary to expedite the digital transition – dual must-carry, receiver standards and mandatory DTV tuners – could find themselves gravely disappointed.

"I don’t know that [the FCC’s] role is obvious," Powell said. "There is a lot of mud that goes back and forth about .. the reason the transition is failing. [But] the parts that are squarely within the realm of the government aren’t that many [and] I don’t think they are the most significant parts of the case."

The commission has "absolutely assured" that broadcasters have digital must-carry for their primary digital video signal absent changes to the statute, Powell said.

As far as the modulation debate, that issue has been "entertained" and a conclusion reached, Powell added. Questions over the results of the standards testing or calls for more testing are falling on deaf ears at the commission, he said.

Broadcasters should remember that "most of the DTV sets currently being purchased are not [being bought] by people relying on over-the-air transmission," he said.

"You have to measure [the standards debate] against trends in television watching," Powell said. "I don’t know if by the time the DTV transition is truly mature, [that] many Americans will actually watch TV [over the air]."

And Powell added that although the commission is only doing a "so-so" job on issues within its own domain, such as licensing and construction permits, it needs to work hard to assure these don’t become "part of the ball and chain that is holding up the transition."

"We’ve made an effort to quell ambiguities that rest squarely within our realm," Powell said, "probably with the exception of the notion of dual carriage. I think we have expressed our doubts about that, but not our final determination."

Beyond that, Powell added, the impetus rests with the industries involved. Those looking for more action had best look to Congress.

Cable carriage of mulitplexed signals is a good example of this.

"The view within the commission is if we had a green field to decide that, we might decide differently. But we were all pretty convinced the statute didn’t [allow this]."

As for issues plaguing the DTV transition, such as copyright protection and standards battles between industries, Powell said that those issues are not "substantially affected by what we do here."

"The trade association world is very curt in [saying] that it is somehow always the government’s fault, but I would take issue [with that]. A lot of those issues we [don ’t] have a direct connection to."

DIGITAL TV: UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

The premise that the DTV transition is not going well is one Powell takes issue with, as he believes the government’s deadlines were a mistake

"The timelines we set out for success are unrealistic," he said. "When we go back and look at the deployment of other killer consumer products and services, nothing moves on a transitional timeframe like this one is expected to."

The DTV transition, Powell added, is "probably on an order of magnitude more difficult" than other consumer products, as it depends on the changing of content and transmission standards, and requires close cooperation between multiple industries."

The idea that we need to achieve 85 percent penetration of DTV in a "relatively short period leads to this perception that it is all a failure," he said. Although the transition could be proceeding more quickly, Powell added, "I am not generally one who thinks it is a catastrophe or moving at an unacceptable pace."

What is most important, Powell noted, is to focus on the needs of the end user.

"I think [what] we sometimes forget is that the group that is most important isn’t really in the debate, and that is consumers. The government has to be very careful, as does the industry, to make the transition an efficient one the consumers embrace, not reject. There is such a thing as pushing things into the market too fast and having consumers not be prepared for the expense or the transition. When you think that the majority of Americans own multiple television sets, it is a pretty big change for a family to make that swap."

Powell would not say whether the 2002 deadline for commercial stations would be postponed, but said he does expect that "come that day, many won’t make it."

"But I don’t want to prejudge what we might do … and it is valuable to be aiming for it anyway," he said.

BATTLES CONTINUE

Although Powell declined to comment specifically on the National Affiliates Stations Alliance’s (NASA) recent petition alleging abuses by the networks, he said affiliates will face a tough sell in trying to convince the FCC that the collapse of their traditional relationships with networks will adversely affect the local interests of their communities.

"Businesses always assert that what is at stake is some kind of ‘Mom and Pop, Mom and Apple Pie’ government interest and that this isn’t about [competitive] advantage," he said.

The question of the value of local, over-the-air television, he said, must be segregated from what is "really a marketplace development of battling business models."

"The only way to sort through these issues is to stop focusing on the allegations of the businesses and think about it from the consumer impact," Powell added.

The changing nature of the network/affiliate relationship, he added, is in a such a state of change that the government’s role is not obvious.

"Today the government would probably entertain seriously questions about its impact on localism and local distribution under the way that it is administering television," he said. "But I’m not so sure in the coming years whether that is going to be a harder thing to do, to assert as a legitimate basis for government’s role.

"That is what you are seeing first in the market – part of the cracking going on between these industries – [the] different judgments about where the competitive medium is going [and] what you have to be able to do and deliver [given] advances in technology, in consumer tastes and interests."

Under the Hood of a PVR/TV Combo: by Peter J. Brown

MOUNT DESERT ISLAND, MAINE

Once in a while, a new product emerges from the consumer electronics industry that provides value and solves a problem at the same time. Panasonic’s new PV-SS2710, the first of the combination PVR/TVs does both, using a stylish and ergonomically sound platform. If you are wondering whatever happened to ReplayTV’s Showstopper, rest assured that it is alive and well in PV-SS2710, which has an MSRP of $899.

At a time when the CE industry might be more focused on satellite TV receivers from Philips and Thomson Multimedia with built-in PVR functionality, including the new Microsoft-powered, dual-tuner-equipped UltimateTV box, the PV-SS2710 may be slipping quietly underneath everyone’s radar screen. This is, after all, the birth of a new product category, and it starts with a bang.

Is real estate around the TV an issue? Is the PVR just too darn complicated and too time-consuming to set up? Is a monthly fee not what the consumer had in mind? Enter the PV-SS2710, which addresses all these sensitive issues and puts the PVR back on track in the process.

In addition, by reminding users to "use the ‘High’ record level sparingly," and to offload long-term content to a VCR, the world of digital asset management unfolds for the TV viewer, something that is a hot topic unto itself these days.

No, this is not a PVR encased in a 16 x 9 DTV -- not yet anyway. This is a 27-inch TV with a single tuner sitting atop roughly 30 hours of storage. The remote control is a simple and still surprisingly sophisticated consumer interface. Pick it up and you begin to realize that the myths about the user-unfriendliness of PVRs are just that, and they are about to dissolve.

Take the issue of the complexity of setup, for example. You have no doubt heard all the tales of a prolonged setup that can take hours and hours. The PV-SS2710 instantly eliminates an entire wiring cycle by embedding the PVR inside the TV itself. Normal jacks and S-Video connectors attach to a coherent layout of inputs and outputs with serial port and IP blaster port-based connectivity to cable and satellite boxes.

The numerous setup diagrams in the operating manual, however, did not take into account the very basic configuration of this rural household. Granted the six satellite dishes that once dotted the backyard are now gone, but this is an off-air and satellite-driven residence without any access to cable lines. So, I left the off-air antenna connected to the Hughes Network Systems’ Silver Edition DSS receiver without recognizing the fact that as the channel guide information was downloaded to the programming menu, the entire block of local TV channels was bypassed.

Despite the "universal" remote control, the Hughes box could not be programmed into the PV-SS2710 remote -- and believe me -- every brand code was tried more than once. That amounted to a minor inconvenience that even my 8-year-old daughter adjusted to in about a day.

The channel guide download took a reasonable amount of time, well under an hour. And the subsequent patching in of local channel data – this reloading had me wondering about whether or not another download of equal length would unfold – actually took place in under 10 minutes. It happened the following day once the off-air antenna had been unhooked from the DSS receiver.

The performance of the PV-SS2710 in terms of pause, seven-second instant replay and rewind/replay was remarkable. Granted all the PVRs do this today, but in this case the TV was doing it and it made me wonder why it took so long to get us here. Slow motion, frame advance and the controversial QuickSkip features are right at your fingertips.

I did not explore the intelligence of the machine, the V-Chip control or the recording priorities feature that batches programs into guaranteed and nonguaranteed recording status.

Show-based recording of all episodes of a show, along with theme-based and so-called Replay Zone-based recording is what drives the PV-SS2710 beyond the manual process of simply spotting an upcoming show, and then tagging the show in question for auto-record. Just remember to leave the satellite or cable box on.

Creating an offline archive with an output to a VCR is achieved by simply selecting "Save to VCR" on the Replay Guide. Yes, the guide hierarchy takes a bit of time to adjust to, but it is a novice-friendly interface. One can proceed right up the ladder, slowly adapting to the more elaborate features without having any one of them as an impediment to the fundamentals – another user-friendly twist to this device.

Are there any weak points? The hard drive emits a detectable whirring sound, and yet it is not distracting. It is just there. There was a funny response to some off-air signals – a degree of over-sensitivity – as if the TV station’s master control operator can trigger a "loss of signal" screen on the PV-SS2710 whenever certain transitions are underway between some ads, promos and live feeds from the network. The pattern was not uniform, and I cannot rule out some operator error here.

The front of the PV-SS2710, which includes inputs for video game players, camcorder, digital still cameras and DVDs, is organized as neatly as the universal remote control.

Put it altogether, and if the PV-SS2710 represents the first step in TV/PVR combos, it is a giant step indeed. Second tuner or not, this is ideal for the sports enthusiast who might like to do instant replay more times than the folks actually controlling the broadcast, and for the financial sector or investor community that wants slightly delayed or paused instant access to a CNBC feed, for example. It is a neat solution searching for the right venue. Panasonic has obviously done its homework.

REGULATORY

FCC Changes Dual Network Rule, Will Allow Major Network to Own Emerging Network

In a Report and Order (R&O) adopted on April 19, the FCC eliminated the portion of the dual network rule that prohibited mergers between a major network and emerging networks UPN and WB. In so doing, the FCC stated that the economics of the broadcast television industry have changed to the point that retention of the rule in its current form is no longer in the public interest.

The original dual network rule grew out of the Commission’s investigation of so-called "chain" broadcasting in the 1940s. The initial dual network rule was adopted in 1941, and extended to television in 1946. The rule prohibited broadcast stations from affiliating with any entity that maintained more than a single network. Although the rule was eliminated with regard to radio in 1977, it remained in this form with regard to television until 1996. As part of the Telecommunications of 1996, Congress directed the FCC to revise its dual network rule to prohibit a party from affiliating with an entity if that entity controlled more than one of the four largest networks — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — or with an entity that controlled one of these four networks and either of the two emerging networks. The two emerging networks were identified in the legislative history of the 1996 Act as being the UPN and WB television networks.

In the R&O, the FCC analyzed the emerging network provision of the rule in the context of the significant changes in the video marketplace that have taken place since the 1996 Act. The Commission stated that, between 1996 and 2000, the number of commercial and noncommercial television stations had increased, but in that same period prime time viewership among the top six broadcast networks declined from 71% in 1996 to 58% in 2000. It noted that this reduction in broadcast network viewership was accompanied by the steady expansion of the cable and direct broadcast satellite industries to the point where today, nearly 84 percent of households receive their video programming from one of these two multichannel video programming distribution services. Additionally, the Commission pointed to an increase in the programming available from cable and DBS providers since the 1996 Act.

The R&O also stated that the proliferation of video programming networks warrants relaxation of the rule. It noted that at present, approximately 84 percent of television households obtain their service from a multichannel video programming distributor such as cable, DBS, or Multichannel Multipoint Distribution Service. Most of the subscribers to such systems have available to them a cornucopia of video services. Although many of the video programming networks presented on cable systems are vertically integrated with cable multiple system operators, they nevertheless contribute to diversity by providing programming to most viewers that is from a source other than the six broadcast networks covered by this rule. This, the R&O concluded, diminishes the importance of maintaining UPN and WB as independently owned network "voices."

BUSINESS

TEKTRONIX ACQUIRES ADHERENT

Tektronix Inc., a test, measurement and monitoring company, recently acquired Adherent, a provider of MPEG measurement and analysis for digital video. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Adherent will be combined with the Tektronix video business to deploy MPEG technology for storage and transmission of video over broadband communication networks, including the Internet. In a teleconference held on April 18, Rick Wills, president and CEO of Tektronix, said that the decision was made from his company’s viewpoint because Adherent offered the capability of being a "synergistic partner with a complementary skill set and product line."

Tektronix plans to transform the current Adherent facility in Cambridge, England into a global center for MPEG testing. According to Adherent Managing Director Ian Valentine, the business deal provides Adherent with a more far-reaching infrastructure as well as global resources such as the distribution network of Tektronix, sales force and technical resources.

CompleteTV, IRIS and VideoTele.com Combine Broadband TV Efforts for Tennessee

CompleteTV, IRIS Networks and VideoTele.com Inc., (VT.c), recently announced joint efforts to utilize IRIS’ fiber-optic network to test the deployment of revenue generating services such as broadband television, Internet connectivity and premium telephony services throughout Tennessee.

Under the terms of the project, CompleteTV will deploy and manage VT.c encoders for transmission of entertainment content over DSL network architecture. Leveraging IRIS Networks’ fiber, CompleteTV intends to deliver the bundled offering to Tennessee-based independent phone companies.

Current tests of the partners’ network began in January in Tennessee's De Kalb County and indicate the successful processing and distribution of real-time television content from a simulated head-end operated by CompleteTV. To date, CompleteTV has successfully sent a 26 Mbps digital broadcast signal 5,000 feet from the central office of Dekalb Telephone Co-op in Alexandria, Tenn. to a remote user location after transporting it more than 100 miles over the IRIS fiber network.

Elements of the initial stage of testing involve satellite downlinking of network television programming at an existing head-end facility located on the IRIS Network. The VT.c M2-T310 encoders process the analog video content, converting it to MPEG-2 digital video. It is then delivered to the IRIS Network, which will distribute it to one of the telco partners participating in the test. That content will be integrated with locally inserted programming and distributed via DSL technology to set top boxes and standard television receivers. Broadband Internet connectivity (up to 3 Mbps), data transmission and enhanced telephone service (like caller I.D. and call waiting prompts accessible from users’ television screen) will also be demonstrated simultaneously from the same set top units. The second testing phase will target the simultaneous transport and reception of digital television and broadband Internet access to multiple telcos on the IRIS Network.

Pioneer and Electrosonic Provide HD Video Wall Display Systems at 160 Best Buy Stores

Best Buy, a consumer electronics and appliance specialty retailer, will bring HDTV to life through eight-feet-high-by-14-feet-wide video walls that will serve as display centerpieces in more than 160 Best Buy stores across the country.

The video wall system was originally installed to showcase HDTV imagery through a dramatic display system and is intended to demonstrate Best Buy’s stated commitment to the new format. With cube technology from Pioneer and the design from Electrosonic, a Minneapolis-based systems integrator specializing in video wall processing, engineering, design and installation, shoppers will be able to see video wall presentations that dramatize HDTV’s graphic and video capabilities to create life-like, 3D images.

Shoppers will be able to take a look at the latest movie trailers, music videos and store promotions. 30-minute video loops are stored on a HD video server, networked to each video wall system and updated via remote satellite every month. All content is provided by in-store digital and NTSC channels and from digital off-air broadcasts. It is then displayed on video walls comprised of twelve 53-inch Electrosonic PV8000 projection cubes driven by Pioneer engines (model RM-V2500NA). The cubes are stacked in a 3 x 4 horizontal configuration to allow for HDTV’s 16:9 aspect ratio.

BAF Communications Acquired by Prime Medical

The parent company of BAF/Mobil Tech, Calumet Coach Company, reached an agreement in principle to be acquired by Prime Medical Services, Inc. of Dallas, Texas. Prime is a public company that operates non-invasive kidney treatment centers and refractive surgery centers. Prime already owns AK Associates, a manufacturing facility for specialized medical vehicles.

This consolidation joins two of the largest manufacturers of specialty medical vehicles. Calumet designs and builds medical, broadcast, and special purpose technologies such as CT scanners and MRI systems. BAF will continue to build specialty vehicles for other industries.

Integrated Systems Joins AP as Distributor of Broadcast Technology in Egypt

Associated Press (AP) has named Integrated Systems, a supplier to broadcast organizations in Egypt for more than 12 years, as a distributor of AP broadcast technology products, including ENPS, its Electronic News Production System.

From its offices in Cairo, Integrated Systems provides production equipment and building television and radio studios and stations through its Studios & Broadcasting Equipment and Educational & Training Equipment divisions. The company also develops advertising studios and provides educational and research training equipment to the country's top media organizations.

DRS Technologies Receives Army Contract for Sighting Systems

DRS Technologies Inc. announced that it has received a new order from the U.S. Army to provide spare Horizontal Technology Integration Second Generation Forward Looking Infrared (HTI SGF) sighting systems. These systems apply critical common night vision technology across several land platforms, including the Abrams M1A2 Main Battle Tank System Enhancement Package (SEP), the Bradley M2A3 Infantry Fighting Vehicles and the M1025 and M1114 High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV).

The $7.1 million order was awarded by the Army's Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) in Fort Monmouth, N.J. Work associated with these upgraded systems will be accomplished by the company's DRS Sensor Systems unit in Torrance, Calif., and the DRS Optronics unit in Palm Bay, Fla. Product deliveries are scheduled to commence in August of this year and conclude in Sept. 2002.

On2’s VP3 Now Licensed by Real Networks; On2 Compression Technology Breaks 1-Megabit Barrier

Real Networks has joined Apple's Quicktime in licensing On2’s VP3 technology for the RealPlayer. The technology is available via Real's AutoUpdate or at www.on2.com.

Additionally, On2 and Equator have advanced compression technology by delivering the first compression technology to break the 1-megabit barrier for full resolution with 60 field-per-second digital video delivery. Current technology usually requires 3-8 MB to achieve comparable quality. The result is comparable to MPEG-2 at more than a 75-percent reduction in bandwidth.

PRODUCTSVCI Offers New Web-based Account Inquiry Application

VCI, a provider of broadcast business systems, is developing a STARS II+ add-on application that will help broadcasters and their clients exchange critical account information faster and more efficiently via the Internet.

The new application, called VCI ClientConnect, will allow advertisers and agencies to access copies of contracts, placements schedules, invoices, statements of account, in-house media, and other pieces of information any time of the day from any Web-enabled location.

Linux Version of Maya Available

Alias|Wavefront, an SGI company, announced that it has successfully ported its entire suite of Maya 3D software products to the Red Hat Linux operating system. The products Maya Builder, Maya Complete and Maya Unlimited for Red Hat Linux 6.2 and higher will begin shipping last month.

i2DVD Player to Combine DVD, Internet, CD and ITV Functions

Inprimis and iDVD Box, two Boca-Raton, Fla.-based companies have added interactive TV to the DVD box. The new i2DVD Player will be on the market as early as July. The box will combine DVD, Internet access, CD and MP3 music and interactive TV technologies in one unit and will offer interactivity between any standard DVD or CD media and related Web content.

Some of the units will be available with Smart Card technology, enabling home shoppers in certain areas to use qualifying electronic cash cards to buy products and services and take advantage of incentive programs from their TVs.

Digital Dimension Uses RenderDrive for NASCAR Graphics on FOX

Digital Dimension, a production house based in Hollywood, Calif., recently used the RenderDrive advanced 3D rendering system from ART (Advanced Rendering Technology) to render computer-animated television spots for the FOX network's first televised broadcast of the NASCAR 2001 season.

The 2001 NASCAR spots were created using RenderDrive, 3d studio max, and ART's RenderPipe plug-in, which provides an interface between 3d studio max and RenderDrive's photorealistic ray-tracing platform. Digital Dimension has used RenderDrive for previous FOX television work including a teaser ad for the television drama "Boston Public" which incorporated RenderDrive's photorealistic rendering and lighting effects.

Toon Boom Releases ToonShader Addition to USAnimation System

Toon Boom Technologies announced the release of ToonShader, the most recent addition to the USAnimation system. ToonShader extends the capabilities of Maya so users can render their 3D models into the Macromedia Flash format with USAnimation. It also gives 3D animators the opportunity to benefit from USAnimation's other features in order to create 2D animations with a 3D flare.

Omneon Video Networks Signs OEM Agreement With nStor

nStor Technologies, a supplier of enterprise-class storage solutions, announced that Omneon Video Networks has signed an OEM agreement to purchase nStor's enterprise-level NexStor storage enclosure for use with its Networked Content Server System, an applications platform for companies that produce, manage and distribute video program material.

PEOPLE

MST Picks New Chief Strategic Officer

Mixed Signals Technologies (MST), a provider of advanced interactive TV (ITV) technologies, services and content development, announced that Steve Schein has been appointed to the newly created position of chief strategic officer and senior vice president at the company. Schein will manage development initiatives and lead strategic planning efforts designed to accomplish company growth.

Schein, who has more than 15 years of business, marketing and technology experience, came to MST from Intertainer, where he was the senior vice president of corporate development and strategic planning. Prior to Intertainer, Schein was at DIVA Systems Corp., where he spent two years as the director of product management. In the early 90s Schein served as the senior director of product and business planning at StarSight Telecast Inc. He has eight patents in his name in the area of ITV. From 1986 to 1991 Schein spent five years at Pioneer Electronics (USA) Inc. as senior product planner.