What’s Digital Television?

SOMEWHERE OUT THEREYou might not have noticed that some words are more meaningful than others. For instance, take the word air, as in the famous Mediterranean-tourist phrase, The air is humid but the figs divine.

I went to one of those hernia-inducing unabridged dictionaries they keep in libraries and looked up air. It's got something like 60 different meanings – to ventilate, the stuff we breath, a song … even to broadcast. You get to figure out the meaning from the context. For instance, in The soprano sang a lovely air we ain't talking about odor, publicity, or style.

Got it? Good. It's pretty amazing that three letters could have so many meanings, but a, i, and r ain't alone. Try d, t, and v.

What's DTV? Geez! Everyone knows that answer: It's digital television. You may be confused about the V in DVD (video or versatile) or the D in DBS (direct or digital), but there's just no question about DTV. D is digital and, except for a few Internet holdouts in the nation of Tuvalu, TV is, has been, and always will be television.


So, now that I've gotten that out of the way, here's the real question. What's DTV?

"But, Mario, didn't you just ask that?" Maybe, but I didn't mean it the same way. What's digital television?

The good old Consumer Electronics Association (CEA, or, as I prefer to pronounce it, See-ya) offers this definition on its Web site, CE.org:

"Digital Television (DTV) – DTV is the umbrella term used to describe the new digital television system adopted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in December 1996."

That's pretty much good enough for me. I ain't sure Our Beloved Commish officially adopted anything in December 1996 (I'd say April 1997), and it's kind of circularly weird defining Digital Television as the new digital television system, but that's OK. Methinks we can all figure out from this definition exactly what they mean: the digital broadcast terrestrial television transmission system in use in the U.S. If we were in Europe we might use their cutesy mirror acronym, dTTb (for digital terrestrial television broadcasting). Clear so far? Lovely.

So, on July 25, the president of See-ya, Mr. Gary Shapiro himself, testified before the House Telecommunications Subcommittee in a hearing on DTV. One of his sentences was this one:

"We are pleased with this explosion in nonbroadcast DTV programming."

Well, I, for one, am downright confused here. If See-ya defines DTV as being digital broadcast television, then how can there be such a thing as nonbroadcast DTV?

President Gary must clearly be referring to something other than DTV, but what? Television could mean broadcast, cable, satellite, microwave, fiber, DSL, VCR, DVD, streaming and more. Digital could mean transmitted digitally, produced digitally, processed digitally, or even anything to do with numbers or fingers and toes (look it up).


Well, geez! That means DTV could include DVD, DV, streaming media, DBS, digital cable TV, TV sets that use digital processing (sometimes just 6 bits), or even TVs with keypads for channel changing that you touch with the tip of one digit. Well, yeah! I'll say there's been an explosion of that stuff. Heck – I'd be hard-pressed to figure out what ain't in that definition. Even my analog VHS machine has buttons and chips.

How come I'm so fascinated by President Gary's "nonbroadcast DTV"? It's on account of his so-often telling us about how great DTV is doing. It sure would be nice to have a wee mite of an inkling into what the heck he's talking about.

I mean – in that very same testimony, President Gary used this sentence: "Indeed, a recent survey by the National Consumers League indicates that DTV owners are overwhelmingly satisfied with the performance of DTV products, although they are dissatisfied with the amount of available broadcast programming."

Mayhap you have seen this study or some publicity about it. It made a pretty big splash when it came out in July. One published report says See-ya actually paid for the NCL survey, but I wouldn't dream of spreading such information around.

Anyhow, Opinion Research, a highly respectable firm, conducted the study of "digital television owners." See how come I'm interested in the meaning of the term? Were these folks watching used VHS tapes on 20-inch cheapo TVs with three 6-bit processing chips? Or were these folks watching dTTb on $12,000 HDTV viewing systems?

"Come on, Mario! As you said before with air, it's obvious from the context!"


Is it? Here's a paragraph from the press release on the survey:

"'NCL commissioned this survey to assess consumer satisfaction among digital television owners,' said NCL President Linda Golodner. 'Opponents of the existing national digital broadcast standard have been suggesting that consumer response to DTV is unfavorable,' Golodner said. 'Our survey shows the assertions are groundless. We found that consumers were overwhelmingly satisfied with their HDTVs, a rather unusual response for such a new product.'"

So, let's see ... . We start with "national digital broadcast standard." That surely does sound like dTTb. But we end with "HDTVs," which is definitely not dTTb. Our Beloved Commish said, when it issued its dTTb rules, that no one would ever have to broadcast HDTV.

"But, Mario, maybe they're just talking about dTTb viewers with HDTV screens – what you had as your second choice." Are they? Here's what the press release says about the sample:

"This NCL DTV owners survey was conducted by telephone May 31-June 14, 2000, among 200 digital television owners. The sample of 200 respondents was derived from a listing of approximately 1,100 DTV owners gathered by NCL from retailers and manufacturers and supplied to Opinion Research Corporation."

Okay, so it was a rigged sample, pre-selected from the larger universe of DTV owners. But what does DTV mean? Let's go now to the actual survey results: 20 percent had sets with integrated digital tuners, and 20 percent used set-top boxes. So, assuming no overlap, 40 percent had at least the vaguest possibility of receiving dTTb. But 60 percent didn't!

There's more: 48 percent said the main signal source for their DTV was satellite. Methinks there's no terrestrial in satellite. 16 percent used outdoor antennas and 2 percent indoor. That combined 18 percent is even lower than the previous 40 percent.


So, are we, as President Linda suggested, really talking about HDTV here instead of dTTb? As the mussed-up tangled string said, "I'm afraid not." Only 59 percent had either direct-view or projection HDTVs, and if there's a third kind (direct HDTV stimulation of the visual cortex maybe?) methinks no one owns one.

Time for a recap? There's a survey of "DTV owners" conducted from a list supplied by manufacturers and retailers, and, even using such a preselected list, it turns out that many own neither dTTb receivers nor HDTV displays. So, what the heck is a DTV owner? What the heck is DTV? Why does anyone print crap like those meaningless survey results anyway?

(According to the big, heavy dictionary, one of the many meanings of crap is something deceitful, empty or useless. Sounds about right to me).

I'd like to start a campaign to make DTV less meaningful. Let's give it just one meaning: dTTb, just as President Gary's Web site does.

To err may be human, but DTV was meant to be aired.