Success and New Math of DTV

SOMEWHERE OUT THEREYou might not have noticed that Digital Creative Development Corp. (DC2) is one of the oldest technology companies around. It's older than NxtWave. It's older than Avid. It's older than Apple or Microsoft. It's older than the ATSC. It's old.

I ain't sayin' it's the best technology company, but ya don't get to be 31 years old in the technobiz these days without havin' somethin' on the ball. What's that ya say? Ya never heard of DC2? Geez – ya know, methinks that might be on account of they changed their name on May 19. They used to be called Arthur Treacher's, Inc., as in Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips. Hey – they never said what kind of chips.

"But, Mario, what does that have to do with the price of DTV decoders at Circuit City?"

I'm glad ya asked. Near as I can figure with my one remainin' neuron, Nellie, it ain't got diddley to do with DTV. But, near as I can figure, neither has a lotta other stuff bein' said about DTV.

This ain't gonna be one o' them there rants I'm always readin' these days about COFDM or 8-VSB. As far as I'm concerned, they've both got problems, and no one's yet convinced Nellie that one or the other's gonna save the day.

My explication (or should I say exegesis?) of the CBS KYW-DT test report last lunar cycle wasn't meant to praise or put down either modulation technique. I was merely pointin' out that what a buncha folks were callin' CBS's 99% successful DTV reception rate in Philadelphia was neither 99% successful nor in Philadelphia (but it was CBS, and it was DTV).


Ya mighta remembered that I gave a homework assignment last time, too. In case ya forgot to write it down, here it is again:

"Homework assignment: See if'n you can find someone at the Consumer Electronics Association who can tell you how they define those 200,000 or so DTV something-or-others that they say have been sold."

Guess what, class! Between my writin' those words and my writin' these, Gary Shapiro, president o' the good ol' CEA (or, as I am wont to pronounce it, See-Ya), volunteered to help teach this course, The Truth About DTV 101. This is what he said at the International Electronic Cinema Festival in Portland, Ore., in May:

"In fact the first three years of DTV sales will exceed the total first three-year sales of three blockbuster products combined: color TV, VCR and DBS." Pretty amazin', eh? Were you aware that DTV is doin' better than DirecTV or VHS? Me, neither. But, in case ya think Gary "misspoke," See-Ya sent out a press release on May 19 confirmin' it in the very first sentence:

"According to figures released today by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), early sales of digital television (DTV) outpace those of color TV, videocassette recorders (VCRs) and digital broadcast satellite (DBS), combined." It's just as amazin' the second time around – even more amazin' on account of they left out President Gary's future tense. If'n ya only read the first sentence (and who has time these days for more?), you'd know DTV has already beat the pants off of all o' them there products combined. Wow, eh?


But there was a third time, a corrected release sent out on May 22 (but keepin' a May 19 dateline). This time the first sentence is a lot milder: "According to figures released today by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), early factory-to-dealer sales of digital television outpace introductory sales of other hot video products." Would that be "hot" as in "stolen"?

Nah, the press release explains later: "According to CEA, if DTV unit sales reach the projected 425,000 in 2000, bringing integrated DTV sets and standalone DTV monitor sales to more than 550,000, it will have outperformed unit sales of color TV and VCRs individually during the same three-year introductory time period. Projected third-year sales of DTV outpace those of DBS (275,000), one of the fastest selling consumer electronics products ever."

What's DBS? President Gary explained that in his speech: "Digital broadcast satellite, or DBS, was one of the fastest selling consumer electronics products in the history of our industry." I (or should I say we?) always thought the "D" stood for "direct," as in "direct-to-home," but methinks it makes no difference. The first direct-to-home satellite broadcastin' didn't get goin' until folks like DirecTV and Primestar started doin' it, way back in 1994.

But in its first year, DirecTV got 320,000 subscribers. That's more than 275,000, and that ain't countin' Primestar nor years two and three. So lemme just jump ahead to year three, 1996. That's when DirecTV broke the 2-million-subscriber mark (and EchoStar's Dish got 350,000). Geez! I always thought 2 million was more'n 425,000.

After See-Ya was called to task about President Gary's comments and the first See-Ya release, a See-Ya PR guy "explained" on an Internet DTV forum that See-Ya had been trackin' sales of satellite equipment since 1986, and in 1988, 275,000 were sold.


Hey – great! 1988 is sure-enough the third year of a sequence in which 1986 is the first year. Ayup! The only question is: The first year of what?

My pal Bob Cooper stuck a TVRO in his backyard (or was it the front?) back in 1978 or so, but no one was broadcastin' directly to him. DBS – by any definition – started in 1994, not 1986. And who was sellin' digital satellite gear to consumers afore 1994?

Okay, then. So we know the DBS statement is wrong, and we know the "combined" statement is wrong, on account of See-Ya, itself, revisin' the press release. Lemme give the ol' looksee to what's left.

The See-Ya guy conveniently provided figures for VCRs (144,000) and color TV (125,000). My records from 1954-56 are a wee mite disorganized at the moment, so I'll buy his 125,000 for now and get back to it later.

Lemme be the very first to acknowledge that 125,000 is less than 550,000, and 125,000 ain't soundin' too high to me for color TV sales through 1956. But – gosh! – 144,000 sure seems low to me for the third year o' VHS – and it is!

The first three years of factory-to-dealer sales for VHS knock See-Ya's numbers outta the ballpark. So they ain't startin' with VHS. Betamax? Nah, that was only a few months earlier.

Hmmm. Maybe they're startin' with V-Cord or Cartrivision – or maybe Sony's first U-matics. Hey – I ain't gonna quibble. President Gary and the See-Ya press releases all said "VCR," not VHS, and the U-matic was (and is – bless its pointy little filter ringing) a VCR.

So methinks I've gotta have a looksee at See-Ya's 550,000. Now, then, right off the bat, it's based on predictions for the rest of the year. Hey – I ain't read my obituary yet this month, so I'm feelin' magnanimous, and I'll grant 'em their predictions. But predictions of what?

"Mario, the press release said 'bringing integrated DTV sets and standalone DTV monitor sales to more than 550,000,' didn't it?" It sure-enough did! And I can figure out what an "integrated DTV set" is easily enough. It's somethin' that has a DTV receiver and a display screen – what we used to call a "TV set" back in the pre-DTV days.

Ayup, it'd be fine to compare figures for them there integrated DTV sets with color TVs. But the comparison wouldn't look so good for See-Ya's premise that DTV is takin' off. That's on account of – by See-Ya's own figures – a whoppin' 2,639 o' them there integrated DTV sets were sold to dealers in 1999 (and I don't think there's a mortal alive who knows how many of those made it into homes).

Just in case ya ain't noticed, 2,639 is a whole lot smaller than 125,000 color TVs, and, somehow, methinks not even See-Ya's most optimistic predictions for 2000 will make up the difference. Just in case ya thought Nellie forgot about the VCRs (U-matics though they may be), lemme point out here that 2,639 is an awful lot less than 144,000, too.

"But, Mario, what about all the 'standalone DTV monitor sales' that make up the rest of the 550,000?" What about 'em? This much we know for sure from See-Ya: They can't receive broadcast DTV signals. That's why they ain't "integrated DTV sets." So they ain't got anything to do with the success or failure of DTV. Methinks President Gary, himself, said they're bein' used mostly for watchin' DVDs.

This is what else we know for sure about 'em from See-Ya:

"Mario, there's nothin' but blank lines there in my copy of TV Technology." Good. Then it was printed correctly. First See-Ya said they were HDTV displays. Then they said they weren't. A pal-o'-mine who's been askin' See-Ya about it says their latest definition seems to involve their havin' an H-scanning rate higher than 15,750 but not bein' computer monitors. My pal also points out that there were a buncha consumer TVs before 1998 that met those criteria, like the RCA 16:9 34-inch CinemaScreen with component inputs, which came out in 1994. So that would make it a "standalone DTV monitor" before there was DTV. Uh-oh – Nellie's in pain.


Whoa, Nellie! Take it easy! Remember: These things – whatever they are – have nothing to do with DTV. Just because See-Ya calls em' DTV doesn't make 'em DTV any more than callin' Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips by the name of Digital Creative Development Corp. means they've been involved in the development of digital technology for more than 30 years.

But if'n we want to humor President Gary by pretendin' that these things do have somethin' to do with DTV, then we oughta use the first date they were available to start countin', not 1998. I dunno when they first came out, but I know they were available in 1994, so, even if'n we pick 1994, the third year woulda been 1997, and See-Ya said only somethin' around 13,000 were sold in 1998. That'd make 'em less successful than DBS or VCRs or color TV – probably less successful than even laserdisc players (and they were none too successful).

"So, what's your point, Mario?" Simple: DTV ain't the most successful product of all time. But you knew that already, didn't you?