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Avoiding the demise of broadcast TV

Mon, 01/31/2000 - 7:00pm
Walter Ciciora HDTV is Essentially Doomed by the FCC's Rules on Simulcasting.
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By Walter Ciciora HDTV is essentially doomed by the FCC's rules on simulcasting.

This column asks a difficult question: Does DTV mean the demise of broadcast television? And it presents a possible disastrous outcome which is an unintended consequence of DTV. This is not a prediction, but an inquiry into a possibility.

Note that the issue is not whether broadcasters will cease to exist.

Rather, the question is whether broadcast television will no longer be widely available. This discussion is followed by a suggested solution.

My concern is that two forces may come into play, leading to the demise of broadcast television:

  1. Expensive digital TV receivers will not find rapid market acceptance, leading to a reluctance of broadcasters to provide compelling programming, which further delays the market for expensive DTV receivers.
  2. Data broadcasting will grow with the World Wide Web and become a high-demand, profitable use of spectrum. Rather than struggle with a still-born digital television industry, broadcasters will find that data broadcasting is lucrative and in demand. Digital spectrum will be allocated to non-television purposes.

This would lead to the demise of broadcast TV. Broadcasters would have a new business, not involving TV as we know it. Several severe consequences would follow.

  1. Citizens' access to news and information would be reduced, impairing the efficient operation of the democracy.
  2. Pressure would be brought to bear to provide free access to basic services of other media such as cable to fill the gap.
  3. Portable TV reception would be lost or limited. This has consequences for emergency situations. These are unintended consequences, but they are plausible results of the way the rules have been set up.
The demise of HDTV

In fact, HDTV is essentially doomed by the Federal Communications Commission's rules on simulcasting. The rules require that as time goes on, more and more of the digital signals must be a simulcast of the analog signal. Two choices arise. First, the digital simulcast signal is an HDTV version of the analog signal. Second, the digital simulcast signal is just one of the multiplexed digital signals. But if the broadcaster chose the first approach, he would have to abandon the programming sources developed while delivering digital television to a market of digital adapters on top of analog receivers used as displays. Because that configuration does not appreciate HDTV (or even wide screen SDTV), there is no motivation to go through the expense of HDTV programming for the very few HDTV receivers.

A proposed solution

The solution can be relatively straightforward-leave analog television in place indefinitely. Do not require broadcasters to return the analog spectrum. Allow broadcasters to decide what to do with their digital spectrum. The marketplace will sort out the rest. That means citizens will get to vote with their dollars on what they want.

Citizens will continue to have a workable television system which has proven itself over 50 years. Essentially everyone will continue to afford multiple television receivers-including portable battery-operated units-for access to news, information and entertainment.

It is unlikely that the new digital spectrum will be used for Standard Definition Television (SDTV) if analog television continues. Broadcasters will see no need to fragment their audiences with multiple broadcast channels of the same types of programming. They will continue to supply additional channels to cable and DBS for those consumers who want and can afford more.

If there is a marketplace for HDTV (and I hope there is!), it will develop in the orderly manner experienced by color TV, stereo, and other technological advances. There is no need to force it. If, on the other hand, the marketplace needs data transmission more than HDTV, that need will be served by the efficiencies of supply and demand. Broadcasters will have an additional source of income in their digital spectrum to sustain them as the other methods of access to television programming continue to fragment audiences.

Conclusions

This series of four articles (see CED October 1999, December 1999 and January 2000 issues) has several conclusions worth summarizing:

  1. The current digital broadcast television "cram down" scheme is an unfair and unnecessary tax on citizens. It results in money taken out of citizens' pockets to purchase new digital television receivers and proposes to put money in the U.S. Treasury through the auctioning of the citizens' spectrum. In the process, it imperils universal access to news, information and entertainment.
    If it's necessary to sell off the citizens' spectrum to raise money, this can be accomplished at less expense and in less time by requiring better quality tuners in consumer electronics products. This will allow closer spacing of TV channels.
    Most current television receivers will operate satisfactorily.
    Those with severe problems can be helped with an inexpensive set-top box costing about $50 to $75.
    Almost no one will be denied television service. A few will experience a reduction in reception quality, but not a loss of service. This is in sharp contrast to the digital approach, which completely denies television service to those who cannot afford a new digital television receiver or adapter.
    However, it appears we have a national budget surplus and do not have to subject the citizens to this hidden and severely progressive tax.
  2. The current broadcast television scheme is biased against developing into a wonderful High Definition Television system and appears likely to give us more of the same, i.e. "Same Dumb Television."
  3. The "Real Digital Divide" will be caused by a loss of access to news, information and entertainment by those who cannot afford a digital receiver. Even the well-off will lose the convenience of multiple receivers and VCRs throughout the home.
    Dollars spent on a digital TV receiver will not be available for spending on a computer or Web appliance, making the popular "Digital Divide" more prolonged and severe.
    Portable digital TV reception will be nonexistent for some time and very expensive thereafter. It will be a very long time before inexpensive portable receivers will be available for use in emergencies.
  4. The slow growth of digital television receiver sales and the demand for data broadcasting may result in the demise of television broadcasting as we know it.
  5. The solution to these issues is to allow broadcasters to retain their analog spectrum for television broadcasting.

E-mail: Walt@Ciciora.com

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