Monday, April 30, 2007

Do We Really Need DTV?

I am often asked that question. It usually follows statements and questions like, I like TV the way it is...I don't have any interest in buying a new set...What's wrong with the way things were? The answer to the question is complex and differs depending who you talk to.

Federal Law mandates the transition from analog to digital television. That train has left the station and it will occur on 2/17/2009. On the National Telecommunications And Information Administration (NTIA) website it states the most often quoted response:

"Digital television (DTV) is revolutionizing the television marketplace, offering improved service quality, greater service innovation, and new capabilities not currently available from the analog broadcast television service. DTV will allow broadcasters to offer viewers better image and sound quality and also more programming choices.

There are other benefits to the nation as well. The DTV service is designed to use radio spectrum more efficiently than the current analog service. Therefore, upon completion of the DTV transition, the Federal Government will reclaim and reassign analog broadcast television spectrum to other important uses, including public safety and advanced wireless services."

Now it is true DTV offers snow and ghost free reception and additional services like multicasting, interactivity and HDTV from the same 6Mhz channel as analog TV. With analog TV you get one channel of television, no additional services. In most markets analog stations are spaced out so that there is no co-channel or adjacent channel interference. This is less of a problem with DTV, so the government is reducing the television allocation from channels 2-69 to 2-51. Channels 52-69 will be made available for public safety and advanced wireless services.

Since 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina the public safety aspect has gained traction. We all have heard of the difficulties emergency services had communicating during these disasters. So spectrum being made available to public safety is a good thing.

But let's face it the "advance wireless services" is all about money. The government plans to auction off an estimated $10 billion worth of spectrum previously used for analog television broadcast signals for commercial and other new radio services.

Now I contend there’s more to the story… In the mid 80’s wireless companies were indeed seeking spectrum held by broadcasters. Broadcasters (as an industry) trying maintain spectrum said they needed the extra-unused channels for advanced services like the Japanese developed analog HDTV. That bothered government officials and members of Congress. Were we going to cede another market to the Japan?

So a competition was launched, whoever created the most innovative and technologically advance television system would win the marketing rights in the U.S. and probably much of the world. It was about nationalism and jobs…politics and money. The end result of the competition was the development of a digital transmission standard, that still allows the government to recoup un-used spectrum and make it available to public safety and other wireless services. It also provided additional services to television like multicasting, interactivity and digital HDTV.

The story of innovation and politics is brilliantly told by the Pulitzer Prize author Joel Brinkley in his book Defining Vision: the Battle for the Future of Television.

One thing the public needs to keep in mind. Just as it is an expense to you all to invest in a new television or settop box…this government mandate has cost broadcasters millions of dollars in investments in new equipment. While DTV offers the potential for new services, few broadcasters have developed one that can recoup the investment in equipment. For the “transition” we are also operating 2 transmitters (analog & digital), so our energy costs are very high. For a small market broadcaster like WWNY…the DTV equipment costs the same as large market broadcasters, but they of course have greater revenue potential.

So often times we in the industry (especially small market stations) also say… do we really need DTV?

Another Good Article on DTV :
Perspective: U.S. is ready to move to digital TV

Friday, April 13, 2007

Don't Get Left Behind

I've seen estimates that nearly 70 million television sets in somewhere between 20-22 million households will be affected by the analog cutoff in 2009. That figure represents around 20% of the total households using TV's...the rest are hooked to satellite or cable. Within that 70 million set figure there are, no doubt, households that have a combination of television sets that are connected to cable or satellite, and others within the same household that are not. Those kitchen or bedroom sets are relying on off-air reception. It has been estimated that more than half of the 20% that rely on off-air reception are unaware or have limited knowledge that the analog broadcasts will end in 2009.

No viewer should be left behind. That is in part why we have devoted space on our website to educate the viewer. I suspect you will also see an industry wide public service campaign in the upcoming weeks and months ahead and the Federal government has committed 5 million dollars to publicize the change... Of note, the government has been criticized in many circles for not committing enough money to publicity. Five million dollars, for example, is just a fraction of the amount the UK, a much smaller country, is spending promoting their transition to digital. Knowledge is key.

There has been lots of conjecture that many of that 20% are low-income, elderly, or minority households. A recent survey by the Association of Public Television Stations reported those viewers have only slightly lower incomes and are slightly less educated... generally, they are similar to cable & satellite viewers. No matter your income, education, or one should lose service of their television and the service local television provides in the form of news, information, emergency broadcasts and entertainment because of a lack of knowledge. Spread the word... TV IS CHANGING, DON'T GET LEFT BEHIND. It will require some changes by the consumer...either in the form of a new television set purchase, a settop box purchase, or connection to cable or satellite.

The same law that mandates the analog cutoff also provides funding for $40 coupons that can be used towards the purchase of a digital settop box that can receive off-air digital signals and downconvert them for use on an analog TV. Boxes will likely cost a bit more than $40 (estimates recently have them at approximately $60), so the coupons will assist but not fully subsidize the transition for low-income households.

After New Years 2008, all households can request up to two $40 coupons. After the first $990 million in coupons are distributed another $510 million will be distributed to households that rely solely on off-air reception. Those dollar figures account for only 34 million sets of the 70 million affected by the analog cutoff. I suspect the hope is, that of the remaining 36 million sets some will be replaced as part of a normal replacement cycle or will be connected to cable or satellite.

For more information on the Settop Box Program:
DTV Answers Website
NTIA DTV Coupon Program
NTIA Website

More info about the transition:
USA Today: FCC's Copps worried about digital TV transition

FCC Seeks Comment to Ensure All Cable Customers Receive Programming After the Digital Television Transition

More interesting info:
'Rabbit Ears' Find New Life in HDTV Age
TV Antennas Are Back; 5 Tips For Buying One

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

2/17/2009, Why Is This Date Important To You...The Viewer?

2/17/2009 is the government mandated date television broadcasters stop sending an analog signal. They will continue to provide over-the-air broadcasts (and signals to cable & satellite), just in a digital format. Fact is, most broadcasters (including WWNY since 2002) have been broadcasting digitally along with their traditional analog signal.

After 2/17/09 in order to continue to receive programming you must have invested in a digital television set with a built-in "integrated" digital tuner, a digital settop box that receives the digital signal and downconverts it to an analog format for displayed on your standard (analog) TV, or subscribe to a cable or satellite service* whose box will downconvert the digital signal for a standard TV. A Digital TV could be a set capable of displaying high-definition pictures (HDTV) or a lower cost SDTV (standard-definition television set), but to receive the signal it will need an integrated digital tuner or be connected to a settop box described above. All television sets manufactured since March of this year are required to have an integrated digital tuner. Some DTV sets sold prior to that date do not, and require a settop box.

If you are an off-air viewer, a rooftop antenna is still your best bet for reception, but a set of rabbit-ears may work. One of the best features of DTV is that the signal you receive will be noise and ghost free...DVD quality pictures and sound.

Digital broadcasting offers other features, like multicasting (multiple program feeds on a single channel), a digital program guide, and some programs in HDTV. We will explore those features in another post.

*Currently none of the satellite providers in our area offer local stations on their system. We are hoping this changes by 2009.