DTV By the Numbers - TvTechnology

DTV By the Numbers

You might not have noticed that numbers used to mean something. I mean you wouldn't say two is the same as one, would you? Hint: You might not want to answer this right away.
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You might not have noticed that numbers used to mean something. I mean you wouldn't say two is the same as one, would you? Hint: You might not want to answer this right away.

I don't know. Methinks U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it best: "There are things we know we know. There are things we know we don't know. And there are things we don't know we don't know."

I'd add only this. There are things we know we ain't ever going to know, like, for instance, our minds. To put it another way, if our minds were simple enough for us to understand, we'd never be able to understand them.

That goes for the collective mind, too. Remember how American television used to be called 525/60 and most of the rest of the world 625/50? That was total lines/vertical rate.

These days, sometimes folks call it 625/50 and sometimes 576/50. That'd be active lines/v-rate for the second one, which means 625 and 576 are the same thing. But I ain't done.

Which sounds more impressive: 1080/60i or 720/60p? If you're an average Joan, you'll probably go for the first on account of it has bigger numbers. Now, then, the 60 in the first is fields and the 60 in the second is frames, and, if you count by horizontal rate, the second beats the pants off the first. But who counts by horizontal rate?

If you count by pixel rate, 1080/60i has a slim edge, 1,036,800 to 921,600, nowhere near the difference between 1080 and 720. So some folks figure it's better to call 1080/60i 1080/30i. They say it's the same thing. That means 60=30, which means 2=1. Nellie the Neuron is shrieking!

Anyhow, that ain't what I wanted to rant about this month. No, I figured I'd go for that addition to the Rumsfeld Law of Knowledge, the stuff we know -- or at least ought to know -- we ain't ever going to know. And digital television, the kind that allows folks to argue about 576/50i vs. Charles Poynton's space-saving (and frame-centric) 576i25 is one place where we ain't got a scintilla of a fraction of an iota of an idea.

THE TERRESTRIAL QUESTION

I ain't ranting about modulation scheme or video format or audio streams. I've got just one wee simple question: How many folks are watching digital terrestrial television broadcasting? I'll call it dTTb for reasons that should be obvious pretty danged soon.

I'll answer some of my (or should I say "our?") own question. In Zaire, Zambia and Zimbabwe, there are zero. In Namibia, New Caledonia, and North Korea, there are none. In Bolivia, Bhutan, and Burkina Faso, there are bupkis.

In places where there ain't any dTTb transmission, there ain't any dTTb reception. That's easy. The problem is places that do have dTTb transmissions.

One of those places is Britain. They started with onDigital. Then onDigital changed its name to ITVDigital. Then it went into administration, or what Americans would call bankruptcy. Then Freeview took over.

Freeview is just what it sounds like-transmissions that are free to view. Its predecessors were mostly subscription services.

Now, you might think that if there's one thing you can be certain of in subscription services, it's how many people are sending you a check once a month. You might think that, but the numbers don't.

The last-reported number of subscribers to ITVDigital -- not even counting folks watching free dTTb in the United Kingdom at the time -- was higher than the number of Freeview homes, even after the amnesty allowing subscribers with unpaid-for receivers to keep them. So what does that mean? When ITVDigital folded, did those who were watching it, in a fit of pique, smash their boxes to smithereens? "I refuse to watch for free that for which I formerly paid!"

Anyhow, at least the U.K. numbers were reasonably close. Then there's South Korea, where the Ministry of Information and Communications rejected broadcasters' requests to switch their dTTb from the U.S.-developed ATSC system to Europe's DVB-T on account of (among other complaints) having to reimburse the owners of the 140,000 set-top receiver boxes.

Sounds fair, eh? But there's a problem. At the same time that the Ministry was worried about dealing with 140,000 set-tops, other reports put the number of "digital television" receivers at anything from a million to 50 percent more than that.

Now, then, I ain't all that familiar with the culture of Korea, but is it written somewhere that those who purchase set-top boxes rendered useless must be reimbursed but not those who buy integrated receiver/displays? Or is something else going on?

THE NUMBERS GAME

For something-else headquarters, we cross the misnamed Pacific to the shores of the land of E Pluribus Unum, specifically Washingtoon, D.C., on Oct. 16, where the IEEE is holding its 53rd annual Broadcast Symposium. W. Kenneth Ferree, chief of the Media Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission (aka "Our Beloved Commish") is addressing the engineers with a paean to Michael Powell, his boss. The brief remarks include 17 references to "the Chairman" -- probably more than any party hack managed to squeeze into as short a speech in the days of Mao Tse Tung.

Ferree paints a picture of the horrible, vast wasteland that was dTTb before Chairman Mao -- er, Powell -- came along to fix everything. I now quote from the text so conveniently provided by the FCC Web site:

"But why would a station bother constructing expensive DTV facilities, and double its energy consumption, to broadcast both in analog and digital formats, when DTV set sales were completely anemic? According to CEA, there were only about 625,000 DTV sets in America in December, 2000, and new sets were not selling fast."

Now, then, there are two three-letter acronyms in the above paragraph. One is very easily translated. CEA stands for Consumer Electronics Association.

The other's pretty easy, too. DTV stands for digital television.

"But, Mario, what's 'digital television' mean?"

Exactly.

I could make a pretty good case that DBS, digital cable, DTH, DV, DVD, and one whole heck of a big mess of other stuff could be called DTV. Oh, yeah -- so could dTTb.

CEA provides two levels of help. The first level is a real definition that says DTV refers to the dTTb system the FCC approved in 1996. Then the second totally contradicts it.

CEA provides figures for factory sales of "DTV products." An integrated dTTb receiver/display is a "DTV product." So are products that have no capability of receiving dTTb signals -- as long as they can display at least 480p.

Does displaying 480p have anything to do with dTTb in America? Not that I'm aware of. As a matter of fact, when the FCC issued its dTTb rules, it specifically removed any restriction on video format. Plain old 480i is perfectly legit for U.S. dTTb.

So, those mere "625,000 DTV sets in America in December 2000" might be compared to the roughly 700,000 actual dTTb receivers that left factories for U.S. dealers through the end of June 2003 -- well into the regime of Chairman Powell. If the one number sucks, so does the other.

Digital Broadcasting Australia seems to know the difference between dTTb receivers and "DTV products," but it ain't clear to me that they know the difference between homes and installers. Every time they report some number of dTTb receivers sold to installers, it gets translated into a headline touting a number of homes.

Speaking of headlines, on the same day as the Ferree speech, the FCC issued a press release. Here's the headline. "DTV Transition Moving Forward: FCC Says More Than 80 percent of Commercial DTV Stations Are On the Air."

Chairman Powell does it again, eh? But 100 percent of commercial broadcasters were due to be transmitting dTTb 16 months earlier. Heck, the FCC hasn't even approved the applications of 83 stations yet.

I keep forgetting. It's only numbers.