Arroz By Any Other Name Would Still Be Rice

You might not have noticed that now that millions of Americans have glymphs, the znarble transition has finally taken off. And anyone who's concerned about the U.S. economy can just take a gander at the latest troiques. Furthermore, we have nothing to fear from terrorists, now that our homeland is equipped with cinjubs.

"But, Mario, what are glymphs, znarble, troiques, and cinjubs?"

I haven't the foggiest idea.

"But, Mario, why did you write them?"

Well, now, there's a good question. I suspect it had something to do with DTV and some things I've been hearing about same lately.

DTV, as we all know, stands for digital television. Digital television, as we all know, means images of fingers. No? Then does it mean NTSC TVs that have digital signal processing in them? No? Gee, does it mean DirecTV and DISH, which have transmitted digital signals since day one? No?

So does it maybe mean Betacam SX or DVCPRO or D-9? No? Gosh, does it mean 256-QAM cable? No? Might it have something to do with ATSC 8-VSB transmissions? Oh, yeah? You really think so?


Michael "Mikey" Powell, the fearless leader of Our Beloved Commish (aka the FCC), found himself in Las Vegas recently. Yes, it was work-related. He was attending the big Consumer Electronics Show and making such techno-political statements as "TiVo is God's machine." I am not making this up.

Another one of Mikey's statements was that the transition to DTV is "finally going pretty well." He made that statement on Jan. 10, the very same day that Our Beloved Commish released its latest figures on that transition.

Just to refresh your memories, Our Beloved Commish issued its DTV rules on April 3, 1997, so Jan. 10 was just a few months short of eight years later. Here's what Our Beloved Commish reported on Jan.10:

  • Our Beloved Commish hasn't yet managed to process 92 of the applications by U.S. TV stations for DTV transmission.
  • One of the 40 stations that were due to transmit digitally by May 1, 1999, hasn't made it to full license conditions yet.
  • Of the 79 additional stations that were due to transmit digitally by Nov. 1, 1999, four haven't made it on the air at all, and another seven are operating at low power under temporary authorization.
  • If I added right, 1,305 commercial stations were due to transmit digitally by May 1, 2002. On Jan. 10, 2003, more than eight months later, Our Beloved Commish reported 305 licensed and another 418 operating at low power under temporary authority. Combined that's just over half.
  • After 843 stations requested six-month extensions past the May 1 deadline, 602 requested second extensions. By Jan. 10, Our Beloved Commish had only gotten around to even processing half of those.

Does Mikey ever bother to read his own commission's documents? In what regard, dare I ask, is the transition "finally going pretty well?"


No, I dare not ask, on account of maybe knowing the answer. Our Beloved Commish released other information recently. I refer, of course, to FCC 02-338, the Ninth Annual Report in the Matter of the Annual Assessment of the Status of Competition in the Market for the Delivery of Video Programming, MB Docket 02-145, released on New Year's Eve, 11 days before Mikey's statement.

Paragraphs 79 through 87 are supposed to cover Broadcast Television Service. And some of those paragraphs surely do seem to cover just that. But then there's this sentence in paragraph 87: "DTV unit sales for the year 2002 through September totaled near 1.6 million, 83 percent higher than for the same period in 2001." That's followed by footnote 299, which says the information came from a press release of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).

Hey, 1.6 million units in nine months is nothing to sneeze at (unless you've got a cold or flu) .There are just a couple of problems:

First, CEA figures are for factory sales, not sales to viewers. Second, and a lot more important, what CEA calls a DTV unit ain't got anything to do with broadcast DTV.

After a lot of dancing around, CEA finally came up with a solid definition for those products it calls DTV. To qualify, a TV display must include an ATSC receiver. Or it can deal with at least 480p video. Or it can do both.

That middle category is the one into which most of those 1.6 million CEA DTV units fall, and it has absolutely zilch to do with broadcast DTV. Most of them are HDTV, but so what?

"But, Mario, how can you say 'so what?' DTV stations have to carry HDTV!"

They do? Could you please cite a single rule or law to that effect? I surely can't.

When I went back to the 1997 DTV rules, this is what I found in Part 73.624, paragraph (a): "The DTV program service provided pursuant to this paragraph must be at least comparable in resolution to the analog television station programming transmitted to viewers on the analog channel."

In case that's not clear enough, the accompanying report, MM 97-8, spelled it out even better:

"The commission will not require broadcasters to air 'high-definition' programming."

Any questions?

"Yes, if those 1.6 million 'DTV units' don't have anything to do with broadcast DTV, then how many actual DTV receivers, stand-alone and integrated, have been sold to viewers?"

That's a great question! Really!

What? Oh. You want an answer.

A respected analyst was asked about that last year, and he opined that the figure (minus Wal-Mart and Internet sales) through the end of May (starting at the very beginning of the DTV transition) was about 160,000. Throw in Wal-Mart, the Internet, and the other seven months of 2002, and be really generous because it's a new year, and maybe you come up with half a million.

That's less than half of one percent of U.S. homes with TV sets. That ain't exactly what I'd call "finally going pretty well."


The problem is DTV-not the technology, the letters. If you're talking about digital terrestrial television broadcasting, then call it dTTb. There ain't going to be much confusion if you ask how many dTTb sets have been sold. And that ain't the only ambiguous term.

Gone shopping recently? In TV showrooms, you'll find some sets labeled "HDTV-upgradeable."

When I go to a hotel, and they upgrade me, I find myself in a bigger room. So, when you upgrade an HDTV-upgradeable set, does it get bigger? Methinks not.

I'd love to tell you that "HDTV-upgradeable" means the set can handle an HDTV signal, but it ain't got an ATSC receiver in it. As a matter of fact, that is what it means in most cases, but someone showed me an ad for an HDTV with a built-in ATSC receiver that was still called "HDTV-upgradeable." I'm still puzzling over that one.

Geez! If the set is an HDTV without an ATSC receiver, why not call it "HDTV without ATSC receiver?" What am I missing here?

"But, Mario, you can't watch HDTV on it without upgrading it!"

You can't? Why not?

Comcast and Time Warner Cable, to name just two cable operators, provide subscribers with HDTV boxes that plug right into those "HDTV-upgradeable" receivers with no ATSC receiver required. Are you trying to say that cable-delivered HDTV ain't HDTV? It surely looks like HDTV to me.

It's time to stop using DTV (the term). It ain't meaningless; it means too much. It's time to stop using "HDTV-upgradeable." It's just gobbledygook.

Let's start calling a rounded-blade, long-handled, "dirt-moving-upgradeable" entrenching tool a spade, shall we?