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Future of OTA DTV Discussed at ATSC Meeting

The annual meeting of the Advanced Television Systems Committee held last week in Arlington, Va. included presentations from many of the key players in the rollout of DTV in the United States. Some of the presentations and speeches have been posted with the agenda of the meeting on the Web site.

NAB President/CEO Eddie Fritts outlined the State of the Industry Address - Broadcasting. Fritts described the billions of dollars broadcasters have invested putting over 1,500 DTV stations on the air in 211 markets. He took aim at DTV myths. "One myth is that broadcasters are profiteering off of DTV spectrum. Instead, the reality is that broadcasters have billions of dollars of stranded capital in this transition. At some point, there may be revenue generated by DTV; up to now, however, it has been a considerable cash drain on most local stations." He questioned claims of the "$90 billion or $100 billion" investment by the cable industry in the DTV transition, noting, "We all know that money is coming straight from consumers, who year in and year out watch their cable bills rising three to six times the rate of inflation." Broadcasters, he said, "don't have the luxury of charging monthly fees," as their service is free to end-users. Even without the ability to recover the costs of their DTV transition from viewers, broadcasters, he added, "have embraced the move to digital. We realize that local stations can't remain competitive as analog players in a digital world."

Fritts blasted the myth the broadcasts want to hold on to analog spectrum indefinitely. "Why would we want to do that? Why would stations want to continue paying tens of thousands of dollars in extra utility bills each year to send two signals--both analog and digital?" However, he agreed with the Congressmen that warned "of the potential for consumer outrage if this transition is not handled carefully." He added that the Congressional Budget Office says analog TV auctions will generate more money for the Treasury if the auctions are held later, not sooner.

The Consumer Electronics Association's request to delay the DTV tuner mandate rules came in for criticism.

"This transition lets TV set makers share billions of dollars in the greatest transference of wealth in consumer electronics history. If we're talking about ending analog TV, it makes no sense for manufacturers to flood the market this Christmas with millions of analog TV sets. That only elongates the transition. Rather than seeking delays in the tuner mandate, shouldn't we instead be labeling analog TV sets 'soon to be obsolete?' Fritts said.

Additionally, Fritts outlined broadcasters' four priorities for the DTV transition:

  1. Deadlines that protect millions of Americans from losing access to local broadcasting;
  2. Access to consumers for broadcast DTV programming carried on cable. Digital and high-definition TV is about consumers having more choice and better quality. Cable gatekeepers like Comcast and Time Warner ought not be allowed to deny consumers access to any broadcast digital programming. All free bits must flow to the consumer;
  3. No cable headend down-conversion of broadcast programming from digital to analog;
  4. Broadcast flag protection to ensure that high-quality programming not migrate away from free TV.

The "State of the Industry Address - Cable" and the "State of the Industry Address - Consumer Electronics" were not available Sunday on the ATSC Web site. See the TV Technology NewsBytes article Shapiro to Broadcasters: Let Them Eat Cake for a description of the comments made by the president and CEO of the CEA.

David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) spoke on The Digital Transition: Our Digital Challenge. He described one of the problems facing broadcasters. Unlike cable and satellite systems, which can influence the design, manufacturing and distribution of receiving devices, the broadcasting system "must remain an open standards-based system." Donovan explained, "It is precisely this open system that has strained the relationship between broadcasters and the consumer electronics industry. Facing a highly dynamic competitive environment that often includes the integration of multiple services, many broadcasters seek to move forward with new features and technologies through the standards-setting process. At the same time, many consumer electronics companies, while also seeking to move forward, chafe at the thought of including new features in receiving devices." He said this was especially true if there is a potential to create a legacy problem.

Donovan emphasized these issues are real and extremely important. "From our perspective, if broadcasting is to remain as a free service--with an open architecture--then the two industries must develop a process that manages improvements and changes in an orderly fashion." The choice for the consumer electronics industry is a free off-air television system where multiple manufacturers are free to products or a subscription based system "where there is a strong incentive for a provider to select a few manufacturers to produce receiving equipment."

Donovan lauded the efforts of ATSC in providing a venue for engineering discussions, noting "All of us in this room must work together to ensure ATSC remains the focal point of these discussions. Mark [Richter] and his staff have done an excellent job navigating some dangerous waters. We are all in the same boat."

While emphasizing the need to work together, Donovan argued against CEA's request that the 50 percent DTV tuner requirement in 25-inch to 36-inch sets due to take effect this July be replaced with a 100 percent DTV tuner requirement for these sets in March 2006, saying, "Given Chairman Barton's desire to force broadcasters to cease analog transmissions in 2006, you can appreciate our concern about missing the 2005 holiday and 2006 selling season."

Noting that broadcasters have essentially completed their build-out of the DTV system, despite the fact that they have received no assurances of multi-cast cable carriage and the "paucity of DTV receivers in the marketplace," he stated, "At this point in time, it serves no useful purpose for leaders of trade associations to continue the tired refrain that broadcasters are holding up the DTV transition. It is simply not true."

Several broadcasters outlined what their stations and networks were doing to promote DTV and their vision of the future of terrestrial broadcasting. Presenters included Joseph Flaherty and Robert Seidel from CBS, Peter Smith from NBC, David Felland from WMVS, Tom Creter from WJW, Terry Mackin from Hearst Argyle, and Nat Ostroff from Sinclair Broadcasting. Some of these papers are available in the agenda of the meeting.

None of the papers in the "What's New on the Home Front?" portion of the agenda were posted as of Sunday. Check back to see if any of these are posted, as the presenters represented NBC, Nielsen Media Research, Ken Cranes, Microsoft and Decisionmark.

Jerry Whitaker, ATSC VP, presented a excellent overview of ATSC work in his ATSC: Delivering New Standards presentation. Some of the projects include the efforts of TSG/S3 on Digital ENG Communications, chaired by Dane Ericksen, developing specifications for studio-to-remote ENG crew communications and specifications for DRL channel communication. TSG/S3 is considering development of an emission mask measurement Recommended Practice for digital microwave links. The group's goal is to have a Candidate Standard on DRL by Dec. 14. E-VSB implementation is getting attention in TSG/S8, Data Multiplex/Transport, TSG/S9, RF Transmission and TSG/S13, Data Broadcasting. See Jerry Whitaker's presentation for more details on this and other ATSC activity and, of course, be sure to read his ATSC Update in TV Technology magazine.

The speeches and presentations listed in the agenda of the ATSC Annual Meeting present a comprehensive view of the U.S. DTV transition. I've covered only some of the papers available for download and more may be listed later. Also, check the home Web sites of the presenters' organizations, such as and for copies of their presentations or speeches.