DTV - and its new "enhancements"

You might not have noticed that this time all the technical rules have changed. Ayup, this is another rant on DTV - and its new "enhancements."
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SOMEWHERE OUT THERE You might not have noticed that this time all the technical rules have changed. Ayup, this is another rant on DTV - and its new "enhancements."

Once upon a time, ABC, CBS, and NBC were pretty much it, and, when I say it, I mean IT. If you owned a teevee, it was danged-near guaranteed to be tuned into one o' those during primetime.

But that was once upon a time. We still watch teevee, but we might be watchin' The Sopranos on HBO or Larry King on CNN or a movie on DirecTV or Dish Network or a VCR

or a DVD. The big-three audience share's down to pretty near single digits, but it's still enough for the nets to threaten affiliates with direct cable or satellite distribution. If ya have a time machine, take this next sentence back a decade or two and read it for a big laugh: Stations are actually payin' networks for the right to be affiliated. In 2000, it ain't so funny.

CRYSTAL BALL

CBS, the Tiffany network, the one that had Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly in the news division - not the one that thinks the last person kicked off of Survivor is any day's lead news story - foresaw the future when they petitioned Our Beloved Commish for frequencies for HDTV broadcastin' back in 1981. Nah, the future they foresaw had nothin' to do with DTV, but it had satellite broadcastin', so the frequencies CBS said they needed just happened to be the same Ku downlink frequencies the DBS folks sought. Who knows? Maybe they did manage to delay DBS a while.

Anyhow, Our Beloved Commish opened an advanced TV inquiry in 1987, back when advanced TV meant HDTV. When they finally closed the inquiry 10 years later, advanced TV got transmuted to DTV, and DTV was mandatory so everyone would switch to it and balance the budget. I am not making this up.

Color wasn't mandatory. Stereo wasn't mandatory. DTV transmission is. Reception is something else entirely.

G-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-ind!

That was the sound of switchin' gears. So, Our Beloved Commish says somethin' like 82 percent of homes have cable teevee or satellite service or MMDS or video-over-xDSL or somethin' like that - what they call multichannel video service. That means, not even countin' multiple sets, that somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million U.S. homes use only antennas (which is a danged-big neighborhood).

FINE-TUNING

Here's what happens when ya use an antenna. You either get acceptable pix or ya don't. You're almost always gonna get sound, and you'll probably see somethin' - even on an indoor antenna. Don't like what ya see? Get up and fool with the antenna.

Natch, all that is for analog teevee. Here's what happens when ya use an antenna with U.S. DTV. You either get pix as perfect as their compression will allow, or ya get nothin'. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Ya don't get sound. Ya don't get any indication of what to do with the antenna (at least nothin' printable in a magazine that gets mailed).

A buncha folks fall into the perfect-pix category, but it seems to have finally dawned on the members of the ATSC executive committee that a bunch also fall into the zilch category. So, at the end of June, they voted unanimously to explore "enhancements" to 8-VSB transmission to make it more receivable. And that means all the technical rules have changed.

In case you've been encased in a block of ice for more than a year, here's what's been going on in DTV technology: There's been a war between folks who say 8-VSB is good enough and folks who say it ain't. Two o' the big three, ABC and NBC, signed onto the ain't side in their reply comments to the FCC biennial DTV review. Some of the ain't folks think COFDM does better'n 8-VSB.

The is side says ya can't use COFDM for a buncha reasons, two of which are that we need the 19.39 Mbps of ATSC 8-VSB and that we've gotta stay compatible with the hundreds of homes that already have ATSC 8-VSB receivers.

But whaddu these "enhancements" do, eh? I dunno - no one does ... yet. But Broadcasting & Cable quoted NxtWave president Matt Miller as saying, "if you can get 3.5 Mbps robust and 12.5 normal, that's pretty interesting." It sure is! That's 16 Mbps total, not 19.39, not even the 5 + 13 Sinclair demoed with hierarchical COFDM in 6 MHz at NAB.

As for compatibility with 8-VSB boxes in the field, that might take a fair amount of testin', and if any broadcaster decides to go for layered HDTV - whoopsie! So, these "enhancements" could mean anything! I can't wait.