Simulcasting About for a Solution

You might not have noticed that DTV stations don't have to simulcast the programming on their NTSC counterparts.
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SOMEWHERE OUT THERE You might not have noticed that DTV stations don't have to simulcast the programming on their NTSC counterparts. I mean – they don't have to simulcast NTSC programming yet.

Come spring 2003, they've got to simulcast 50 percent. In spring 2004, it's 75 percent. And starting in spring 2005, it's 100 percent, until the day NTSC gets turned off or the sun goes supernova, whichever comes first.

The reason you probably ain't noticed that DTV stations don't have to simulcast NTSC yet is that most of them do anyhow. It's easier than doing anything else. But it louses up what might have been the last sane DTV rule from Our Beloved Commish.

Here's the deal: When do you watch primetime programming? For the 99.9 percent of you without PVRs, I'd say the answer is during primetime (cerebrally challenged as I am, I'm still pretty danged good on some questions – or at least I think I am).

Next silly question: When do you shop for TV sets? Next silly answer: Probably not in primetime, on account of that's when you (and by you I mean Jonathan Dough and family, people who actually watch teevee instead of working on it) watch primetime programming. Capisce?

GIMME FIVE

When you do shop for a teevee is probably on a Saturday morning when there ain't a danged thing on that anyone over the age of consent has a whisper of an interest in viewing. Ergo, Our Beloved Commish's theory was not to saddle DTV with simulcasting between 1997 and 2003. Give stations five years to transmit action movies and non-indecent soft-core porn all day long on DTV, so anyone who's out DTV shopping has a chance of seeing something that looks good in HDTV.

Hey – "Meet the Press" is sometimes an interesting show. "Meet the Press" is a very long-lived show. But "Meet the Press" ain't – repeat, ain't – what you want to watch to choose an HDTV. Not even the press wants to buy an HDTV to meet itself.

"So, Mario, why have simulcasting at all?"

Well, now, after five years of pure action and sex and another couple when action and sex (the non-indecent kind, natch) could still be broadcast on DTV on Saturday mornings, Our Beloved Commish wanted to make everyone considering buying a DTV comfortable and secure in the knowledge that "Survivor XXIII" and "Who Wants to Be a Bazillionaire?" would be just as available on DTV as on NTSC.

That's on account of the theory that NTSC was going to be shut down in 2006 – a belief that is still held, I am told, by some long-lost World War II combatants who washed ashore on an as-yet undiscovered atoll. Yes, it's them – plus one other person, who thinks the simulcasting rule may be the best thing that ever happened to DTV. But I digress.

FEW BELIEVERS

Anyhow, the reason so few people believe in 2006 has something to do with the fact that it doesn't matter to TV shoppers whether a station simulcasts or what they air on their DTV transmissions. That's on account of approximately zero stores carrying said transmissions.

Heck – the so-called "DTV Store" at this year's NAB convention had a wall full of different kinds of programming, almost none of it received in any way, shape or form off-air. I won't get into the specific reasons why this overall lack of retail off-air DTV is the case, but if something happens to pop into your head subliminally – ***>>> RECEPTION PROBLEMS <<<*** – who am I to say you're not right?

Where was I? Oh, yeah – not simulcasting. In primetime, CBS is about as big as they come on simulcasting. They've taken their film-based shows and transferred them to HDTV instead of SDTV (and got one show to switch from film to HD shooting). Then they extract the central 4:3 from the HD and simulcast that as NTSC.

Ayup, that's sure what they do for primetime programming. But it ain't what they've been doing for sports. For the Super Bowl, they not only had different cameras, crews, and directors for SD and HD, but they even had different commentators! Geez!

It seems to me that the boys from Black Rock must have decided that you can't offer your best in both HD and SD simultaneously. Why this is different in sports from entertainment programming must have something to do with testosterone. "The Young and Restless" looks equally misframed to me in either format, but what do I know?

WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS

NBC, the network that spent millions on a new logo only to discover that the National Bank of Cynthiana, Ky., came up with the same one all by itself, has the big sports franchise, the Olympic Games, sewn up into the foreseeable future. Who knows? Maybe the host broadcaster can shame NBC into at least accepting an HD feed now and then.

Dang! Nellie the Neuron's been asleep at the switch, so here I've been criticizing networks when what I really wanted to talk about was simulcasting. My point with the two Super Bowl shows and "The Young and Restless" framing, Nellie thinks, is that even just the different aspect ratios between HD and SD are a nuisance.

So what the heck was RCA thinking with the Scenium line? RCA, you might recollect, was once upon a time the Radio Corporation of America and owner of the National Broadcasting Company. These days, it's just a brand bandied about by various companies, including CBS and Microsoft.

When it comes to TV sets, RCA is a brand of Thomson (Technicolor is another), and methinks it's still the number one brand in the U.S. RCA ain't a slouch when it comes to H-&-D TV, either. RCA's set-top ATSC/DirecTV receiver decoder has been the best selling set-top ATSC box, and they've even been selling a 38-inch direct-view fully integrated H-&-D TV.

So they just announced a new line of HDTV products called Scenium. There are 50-inch liquid-crystal-on-silicon-based 16:9 HDTV rear-projectors with built-in ATSC receivers, and there are 32- and 36-inch direct-view HDTV sets, likewise with built-in ATSC receivers. But they're 4:3.

INCHING ALONG

Let me see if I've got this straight. If you buy a 38-inch RCA integrated H-&-D TV, it's 16:9, on account of that's the aspect ratio that everyone in the world agreed on for HDTV. But, if you buy an even newer, almost-the-same-size, 36-inch RCA integrated H-&-D TV, it's 4:3. But, if you decide to go up to a 50-inch set, it's 16:9 again.

Are they trying to reduce burn-in on the CRT when you watch "legacy" programming (approximately 168 hours per week per channel for the foreseeable future)? Do they think you need the extra few inches of screen height?

Whatever their motivation, they've sure added even more confusion to the H-&-D TV marketplace. And they ain't alone in that department. One of the other RCA-brand users, CBS, made an interesting announcement around about the same time as Thomson introduced Scenium.

CBS has arranged to have its national HD programming carried on the DiSH system to satellite viewers equipped for HD. Those satellite viewers can have the CBS HD if they live somewhere without access to a CBS station. They can have it if they live in a market served by a CBS O& O. Otherwise they can have it if they get permission from a CBS affiliate.

Methinks that's a nice acknowledgement of ATSC-reception problems from a network that's had a hard time acknowledging anything of the sort before, but I ain't quite sure what that does for must-carry. If the shows are available without must-carry, why have must-carry?

"But, Mario, what does must-carry have to do with simulcasting?"

‘THE AGE OF HDTV’

Glad you asked! My esteemed colleague Mark Schubin, the same one I lit into last month for pretending HDTV production was as cheap as SDTV, offered a "summer thought exercise" on the Internet recently. His problem with the HDTV production costs was not thinking things through completely. He saw that Sony had an HDCAM that cost less than a Digital Betacam, and that, to him, ushered in the Age of HDTV.

The fact that routing switchers, monitors, cameras, nonlinear editors and just about anything else you could name still cost muchly more for HD than SD might have escaped his notice. Well, maybe it's the heat, but his summer thought exercise ain't much more thought out.

The idea is that, on account of 100 percent simulcasting being required before 2006, folks who get NTSC stations via cable or satellite will be getting the same programming as those watching DTV. And, as we all know by heart by now, the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 says NTSC can stay on the air after 2006 in a market if:

"15 percent or more of the television households in such market ... do not subscribe to a multichannel video programming distributor ... that carries one of the digital television service programming channels of each of the television stations broadcasting such a channel in such market; and ... do not have either ... at least one television receiver capable of receiving the digital television service signals of the television stations licensed in such market ... or ... at least one television receiver of analog television service signals equipped with digital-to-analog converter technology capable of receiving the digital television service signals of the television stations licensed in such market."

I've warned you about those ellipses in the past, so I won't feel bad if you make any efforts to see what I've left out in there, but, whether you feel like trusting me or not, it ain't anything worth reading. That there paragraph is the big loophole in the 2006 date.

SAFE BET

It's a pretty safe bet that more than 15 percent of the households in any market won't have either DTV receivers or DTV set-top boxes by the end of 2006. Schubin's little exercise involves using the 100 percent simulcasting requirement to define the NTSC programming already carried on cable and/or satellite as "one of the digital television service programming channels." Well, it sort of is, isn't it? And no cracks about what is is.

Anyhow, Our Beloved Commish says that as of June of 2000, more than a year ago, 83.75 percent of TV households were served by multichannel video programming distributors (FCC 01-1, page 106), and more than 80 percent of those were cable subscribers. Now, then, I'm as well aware as any other non-existent masked engineer can be that not all markets have local-TV delivery via satellite – even those that do don't get all local TVs, and even cable ops don't necessarily carry every local signal. But I can buy Schubin's concept that the 100 percent-simulcast rule makes it conceivable to argue that the over-85 percent legal requirement will be met by the end of 2006.

He goes on to point out that, if it's determined that the legal requirements are met and NTSC is turned off, the remaining DTV-only stations automatically get must-carry status. I can buy that, too (if it ain't too expensive). So far, so good.

He even lets us know that Our Beloved Commish doesn't require cable ops to make those must-carried DTV signals visible on analog sets ("We will not require a cable operator to provide subscribers with a set top box capable of processing digital signals for display on analog sets," paragraph 79 of this year's cable/DTV report and order). But then he hits on what he thinks is a solution:

"Were the FCC to then require cable operators to make the signal visible, the cost would be only that of a DTV receiver per channel – as little as under $500 each at today's single-quantity prices."

THE COST IN BANDWIDTH

Ahem. Maybe that would be the cost in capital equipment to turn an 8-VSB signal into NTSC, but what about the cost in bandwidth? Hello?

The reason Our Beloved Commish has (so far) rejected dual (analog/digital) must-carry is that it requires cable ops to carry both analog and digital signals, at a severe cost in bandwidth. Schubin's solution has cable ops carrying – drum roll, maestro, if you please – analog and digital signals. Sorry to take him out of the running for the Nobel Peace Prize, but this ain't the magic bullet.

Still, up to the solution point, I do like Schubin's exercise. Suppose the simulcasting does help meet the legal requirement, and NTSC is ordered off the air as the clock chimes midnight at the end of 2006. Then what?