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Work together to ‘enhance’ understanding of broadcast HDTV, says award winner

For the second year running, the Consumer Electronics Association’s Academy of Digital Television Pioneers has honored Panasonic vice president, Technology Policy & Regulatory Affairs Peter Fannon with its Best DTV Leadership (Industry) Award.

Fannon, whose past accomplishments include heading the Advanced Television Test Center, which helped to set the direction of digital HDTV, and the forerunner of the Association of Public Television Stations, has a unique perspective on the history of HD and where it may be headed.

HD Technology Update, who spoke with Fannon after he received the award last year, caught up with him again to find out how his thoughts on high definition, broadcasters and how the market has evolved over the past year.

HD Technology Update: Last year when we spoke, you said television broadcasting of the future really represents a broadband wireless service. However, in the computer industry and with the Internet, technological competition abounds, thus WiFi, for example, sees progressively more efficient iterations and challenges from competitive technologies such as WiMAX. Broadcasters have ATSC, a mandate to transmit a primary service for free using MPEG-2, and a consumer base that isn’t accustomed to replacing their TVs as frequently as consumers replace computers. Can broadcasters compete effectively given these realities, when MPEG-4 AVC H.264, VC1 and technologies still to come will freely be available to their competitors?

Peter Fannon: The business model for broadcasting will change over time as inevitably as technology itself will. An advance in one can even advantage the other. The broadcast industry through the ATSC has been discussing the potential move over time to new technologies in over-the-air broadcasting, including more efficient codecs that would permit even more intensive use of the broadcast channel.

But technology without a plan is hard to deploy, and a plan without careful technology thinking especially in the free over-the-air television space means little.

So as technology advances, it becomes more and more important for broadcast distributors and receiver makers — that is, makers of not just traditional televisions but other devices as well — to consider the best way to bring the viewing public along with new services and new equipment.

HD Technology Update: Do you believe that the 6MHz digital broadcast channel is safe? Can you foresee statutory or regulatory pressure to force broadcasters who don’t maximize their service to relinquish un- or underused portions of their channel in the future?

PF: I think most broadcasters have every intention of fully utilizing the channel licensed to them. I expect, however, that new wireless “broadcast” services will emerge in the years ahead on other channels — the public policy focus is already intensely on encouraging wireless broadband and other uses.

So, I think the new competition will be between traditional over-the-air broadcasting services and new “broadband” ones — possibly delivered by the same owners but certainly competitive for the time, attention and mind share of consumers. Regardless, as important as wired services are — including the ability to port them to wireless devices — broadband wireless distribution can, and I believe, will be a very strong competitor in the marketplace bringing new and different services beyond the serial programming, news, entertainment and education that we see on broadcast television today.

So I believe broadcasting will easily make its case for maintaining use of its 6MHz digital channels, even as some stations are demonstrating today with multicasts, value-added local services, and even some quality differentiated simulcasts and time-slipped repeats.

HDTU: With you having headed the forerunner of the Association of Public Television Stations, what is your perspective on the deal public television has struck with the cable industry to assure must carry for their digital multicast services?

PF: The full carriage agreement between cable and public television is a terrific deal for the public and for cable and its subscribers overall. The nation’s investment in non-commercial television is amplified by assured carriage of its multiple streams of programming, which public television heretofore has been hard-pressed to deliver to its entire audience. And America’s appetite for television, including the unique and powerful brand of content that comes from local stations and the PBS network, is likely to blossom further with the exposure this carriage deal provides. It was a smart move on the part of cable operators to exploit these valuable additions to their broad services and to reinforce even closer links to their customers through these community-based public TV stations.

HDTU: Last year, we discussed the need for broadcasters to promote the availability of free over-the-air HDTV. One year later, how have they done? And, is it really possible since cable acts as a tremendous gatekeeper?

PF: Now that Congress has set a transition date, the goal of everyone should be a natural one: To promote the “new, better HDTV service.” No one in broadcasting should bemoan the loss of an old technology. Working together there are lots of ways to enhance public awareness and understanding and promote excitement for the availability of HD channels on broadcast television; after all, broadcasters still garner the strongest audiences for their programs. This is a golden opportunity for broadcasting to reinvent itself. In a way, we are all trying to think outside the old box — that is the old TV. After all, with the incredible choice of HDTVs now available at a wide range of prices and features, consumers themselves are thinking of HD displays as more than just “television”— it’s becoming part of a digital lifestyle.

Broadcasters can ride this wave, build on the excitement and position their services in the public’s heart and pocketbook. This is a golden opportunity to re-establish “broadcast quality” for the public as the best programming available.

HDTU: How long do you think it will be before the industry goes through this HD retooling all over again? There have already been demonstrations of Ultra High Definition Television in Japan. And before that technology even becomes a reality, how long until there will be a desire to transmit 1080p?

PF: “One thousand lines progressive to the home” — 1080p — was the target of many from the beginning, so getting there will be very satisfying when it comes. Technology does not happen in a vacuum. A lot of forces and factors are at work and enough must come together to make future transitions both natural and right from a business perspective.

So even as we all thrill to the possibilities that we see in the lab or appearing outside the home market, the old adage that the only constant is change certainly will keep in the industry on its toes. As I noted before, technological symbiosis is perhaps the corollary to that old adage.

HDTU: What is the best evidence you have seen that HD is now mainstream in the United States?

PF: The perfect evidence is that this year ESPN will have some 400,000 advertisements in HD. Nothing speaks clearer in the HD market than that HD advertising is going mainstream. After all, advertising is the underpinning of nearly all television and much more in one way or another, and it proves the point of the HDTV visionaries that video quality counts and there is value in reaching the highest quality.

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