Fwd: Headlines Extra -- Digital TV

Gary Handman (ghandman@library.berkeley.edu)
Thu, 22 Oct 1998 12:23:56 -0700

>Headlines Extra -- Digital TV
>The October 26 BusinessWeek (at newsstands now) declares November 1 "Digital
>D-Day" and asks if anyone is ready for the start of high definition
>television (HDTV). In November 42 stations around the country will begin
>digital TV (DTV) broadcasts. A Jets-Bills football game, for example, will
>be produced by two different CBS crews -- one using traditional analog
>technology, the other shot and broadcast in digital. DTV promises clearer,
>sharper pictures and CD quality sound -- an experience in your home that is
>expected to rival a movie theater. However, the DTV Battleground, as
>identified by BusinessWeek, has a number of competing interests who will try
>to shape the new service to suit their own needs.
>There are 1,576 full-power television stations in the US. Each will received
>a second broadcast license from the Federal Communications Commission to
>offer DTV. Over the next ten years, stations are expected to invest an
>average of $10 million in digital technology. Some time after 2006, when at
>least 85% of US households can receive digital TV signals, broadcasters will
>have to return to the FCC their analog broadcast licenses and become
>digital-only broadcasters. (Some industry analysts believe the transition
>could take as long as two decades)
>Digital technology allows broadcasters great flexibility to offer an array
>of services. Using the same amount of spectrum they use today to offer just
>one analog signal, digital technology allows broadcasters to offer one or
>two HDTV signals with better pictures and sound, at least six signals
>simultaneously with quality that compares to today's broadcasts,
>pay-per-view and subscription TV, plus other services like paging, Internet
>access and wireless telephone service.
>But with all this potential and the generous spectrum loan from the
>Government (valued at many billions), broadcasters have been very silent
>about their business models. As former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt said,
>"Digital TV was given to the broadcasters for nothing. Any other new entrant
>would have spent millions [to get in]. They were given a football at the
>five-yard line with no tacklers in the way and asked to score from here.
>All they got to do is think about it, and then they'll score. But right now,
>they've just figured out they have the ball."
>Cable Operators
>Cable systems around the country are also gearing up for digital. But
>digital cable and digital TV are technically two different things. The
>conversion to digital will give cable operators the ability to squeeze up to
>15 channels into the space needed to deliver one channel today. The industry
>has plans for this capacity -- more premium channels, more pay-per-view --
>and cable operators seem reluctant to carry broadcasters' digital as well as
>their analog signals. With cable's great reach into the home, however,
>broadcasters say it is a must that their new digital signals also be carried
>by cable operators during the transition period. The FCC will decide this
>matter in a proceeding summarized at
>TV Equipment Makers
>New DTV sets are available in many areas now -- even in cities without DTV
>broadcasts -- and are selling for $5,500 and up. The profit margins on these
>sets will be much higher than traditional analog sets, so stores will want
>to move them. But technical glitches and consumer confusion could slow sales
>for both digital and analog sets in the next few years. Consumers will have
>many DTV set options and the early sets may soon look dated as new models
>hit stores. Prices will also have to come down considerably for sales to
>take off.
>US Government
>There's a pot of gold at the end of the digital transition road for the US
>Government. When broadcasters' analog licenses are returned, the spectrum
>used today for analog broadcasts will be auctioned off for new uses. The
>auctions could generate billions of dollars that are already being earmarked
>to balance the budget. The FCC is attempting to speed the introduction of
>DTV and make the transition as rapid as possible. The "must carry" cable
>rules the FCC adopts may have a great effect on how quickly the transition
>is completed.
>The Public
>The debate over digital television is some ten years old, starting in 1986
>with efforts by the National Association of Broadcasters <www.nab.org> to
>keep control of the spectrum. The public has had little say, however, on the
>transition. Just as broadcasters will have to invest in new equipment, each
>TV household will have to invest in new DTV sets or convertor boxes that
>will adapt analog sets to the new broadcast technology. The new system will
>provide viewers with better pictures and sound, but there's no evidence, as
>the commercials interests admit, that that is what the public wants.
>There are also questions about how the programming of digital broadcasters
>will serve the public. A Presidential panel -- popularly know as the Gore
>Commission <www.ntia.doc.gov/pubintadvcom/pubint.htm> -- has been wrestling
>with just this question for the past year (today marks the panel's first
>anniversary). The group has made no formal recommendations yet, but is
>expected to by year's end. The group is welcoming public input which can be
>submitted via email <piac@ntia.doc.gov> or in hard copy (for more
>information, see <www.ntia.doc.gov/pubintadvcom/pubcoms/pubcomm.htm>)
>A framework for the recommendations has emerged over the past few meetings
>of the panel. Their potential recommendations include:
>1) A set of minimum standards for all commercial broadcasters that include
>requirements for community ascertainment, accountability, children's
>education programming, disclosure of public service activity, public service
>announcements, public affairs programming (especially local), accessibility
>to programming for the disabled community, and free political programming.
>Meeting these requirements would justify "must carry" rights on cable systems.
>2) If stations decided to offer multiple signals simultaneously -- called
>"multiplexing" -- the minimum standards would apply to each signal.
>3) Public broadcasters would *not* be asked to return their analog licenses.
>Instead, the spectrum now used for analog digital TV would be set aside for
>more public broadcasting. The capacity would be used to increase
>educational, local public affairs and other public interest programming with
>an emphasis on creating partnerships between public broadcasters and their
>communities, serving underserved communities and encouraging independent
>4) Broadcasters would be asked to provide five-minutes of candidate-centered
>discourse during periods before elections. Broadcasters would be given
>flexibility to cover the issues and elections it finds during the
>ascertainment process serves the community best. A system to offer free time
>to air candidates' ads would replace the current system called the "lowest
>unit rate" which is supposed to guarantee candidates discounted ad buys.
>A more complete summary and discussion of these potential recommendations is
>available at <www.benton.org/Policy/TV/meeting7.html>. Again, the Gore
>Commission welcomes your comments. The next meeting of the Commission has
>been scheduled for Monday, November 9. A vote on the recommendations is
>expected at that time.
>Of course, this update on DTV has not capture all the competing interests
>and opinions. It is intended to begin a discussion -- both on our UpForGrabs
>discussion list and with policymakers -- that will involve the public in
>this major transition. BusinessWeek articles on DTV are available at
><www.businessweek.com/contents.htm>. The cover story ends: ''It will take a
>lot of work to put the last 50 years of broadcast, the last 20 in cable, 15
>in PCs, and five for the Internet--all at the same time--on the home
>screen,'' says Steven Guggenheimer, Microsoft's group product manager for
>digital television. ''It requires cooperation.'' Right now, that's the last
>thing on anybody's mind.
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Gary Handman
Media Resources Center
Moffitt Library
UC Berkeley, CA 94720-6000

"You are looking into the mind of home video. It is innocent, it is aimless,
it is determined, it is real" --Don DeLillo, Underworld