Free OTA broadcasting has a great future, says HD pioneer

The Consumer Electronics Association recently honored Peter Fannon, vice president for Technology Policy, Government and Regulatory Affairs at Panasonic, for helping to lead the nation’s transition to digital and HDTV.

Fannon’s involvement with HDTV began in 1981, when as president of the National Association of Public Television Stations, his organization promoted awareness of the country’s first demonstration of HDTV by CBS and NHK.

As president of the Advanced Television Test Center from 1987 through 1996, he spearheaded the official testing of the performance of the systems competing to become the U.S. HD broadcast standard.

Given the added impetus in Washington to bring the analog switch-off to a conclusion, it seemed like a good time to get some perspective on the end-game to the digital television transition from someone with a unique insight.

High Definition Technology Update: What is your insight into a date certain for analog switch-off and how are broadcasters responding to the challenge?

Peter Fannon: It appears the end game is upon us, and the transition will have a date-certain conclusion in the not-too-distant future - something broadcasters and the government have talked about for nearly 15 years.

Whatever the date, it is bound to be a shock to some. But the goal is to minimize those numbers and maximize the opportunity for broadcasting. The goal was to give broadcasting a chance to succeed in the digital world. The government can’t guarantee that success. But both the ATSC standard and the capabilities of broadcasters themselves can make the transition a real success.

There’s greater capacity, more flexibility, tremendous headroom for growth and improvement, and an enthusiasm for broadband wireless, which is what the television broadcasting of the future really represents.

Even though many of television’s business models are already changing, I believe there is a tremendous opportunity for broadcasting to succeed on its new digital channels. We already see all kinds of experimentation and evaluation by broadcasters themselves. Local stations are focusing on what they do best; group owners are focusing on multiple new services; and networks are experimenting, to be sure, with other distribution but maintaining a significant commitment to their affiliates.

Along with the incredible and growing variety of receiving devices in the home, these steps can help broadcasters find a highly valued and strong continuing place in the media mix of the future.

HDTU: The Consumer Electronics Association asked the FCC to strike its rule requiring 50 percent of 25 to 36in sets sold after July 2005 to have ATSC tuners and to advance the date for 100 percent to have such tuners to March 1, 2006. The message from panel members during the recent MSTV membership meeting in Las Vegas was that consumers aren’t buying the sets with ATSC receivers. Isn’t that a bad sign for broadcasters?

PF: The petition is based on facts. Retailers and manufacturers originally proposed to the FCC that, if there was to be a phase-in, it should be 50 percent of models, not units. After all manufacturers don’t control the number of units bought by retailers or sold to consumers. All a manufacturer can do - and remember, there are scores of television manufacturers and hundreds of brands sold through different channels - is sell what consumers demand.

Consumers set the level at which they are willing to buy into digital television. And manufacturers are very sensitive to such demand, as are retailers who can only offer those things that sell. It’s the same for a broadcaster. He can only do what draws an audience over than time; otherwise he is out of business. The audience in the store has a big choice, just like audiences on the airwaves. And the record makes it very clear that among consumers opting to buy in a sizable majority to date want sets they will connect to cable or satellite first and foremost - therefore not requiring over-the-air tuners. They tend to select models at a lower price that have nearly equal or similar features to one with a built-in ATSC tuner. The tuners aren’t cost-free to manufacture and the price difference obviously has an effect. And just as broadcasters are competitors and cannot mutually agree to do something that would undercut or distort the market for others – legally- neither can manufacturers. So manufacturers have tried to right the original FCC phase-in proposition for mid-size sets by urging this change in the rules.

HDTU: Many from the consumer electronics business have argued that broadcasters are doing a poor job of promoting their free over-the-air service to viewers. The Sinclair Broadcast Group, for one, has launched a campaign to educate viewers that HDTV is available for free over the air. Is that approach needed?

PF: Sinclair has it exactly right. Every medium needs to promote itself. And there are huge benefits to broadcasting. It’s free, offers a high value, in more than just news, weather and local information. Sinclair’s approach is one thing broadcasters can do to make this transition a success.

I got involved in the development of digital HDTV in the early 1980s while working in public TV and later headed the advanced television test center, the ATTC. It was set up by a handful of visionary, forward-looking broadcasters who knew that they needed to be in the middle of future technological developments and were intent on making their business more productive and effective using those technologies.

With a commitment to government that broadcasters would finance this lab, the broadcasting community rallied behind that work. Stations - large and small, group and independent - contributed more than nine years to the development and adoption of the ATSC standard. Their work continues in the ATSC and CEA committees today, on further extensions and improvements to the digital broadcasting standard. I would hope that - based more on enthusiasm for the future, despite concerns over changes in the business environment - broadcasters will undertake a lot more direct-to-the-public promotion of free over-the-air television.

DTV and HDTV give free over-the-air television a chance to compete and succeed. Of course, ATSC makes possible subscription and other paid services over the air and multichannel and multi-purpose content. It even supports ‘artificial’ interactive television, if you will, and ultimately, once spectrum is available after the shut-off of analog broadcasting, there are even ideas on providing real-time, truly interactive TV with two-way RF channels.

I think the ingenuity of broadcasters can make a real success out of this transition but it all starts, as Sinclair has said, with re-acquainting the public with the value, ubiquity and opportunity that comes with digital broadband wireless television.

HDTU: So these unfolding, radical changes in the television broadcast business model don’t make you bearish on over-the-air television?

PF: I personally believe there is a great future for free over-the-air television and for the addition of services - free or pay - that can be supported by the ATSC standard and by the energy and business acumen of broadcasters. And with a focus on an ultimate transition off analog, the release of some broadcast spectrum for broadcasters or others to use in new and innovative ways will only hasten the day when a very vital and highly competitive digital broadband broadcasting service will gain an even stronger place among the choices available to American consumers.

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