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DTV: Should we bet the farm on a digital-only strategy?
APTS plan is creative, but is it wise to rely on the kindness of cable?

Originally published in Current, Feb. 23, 2004
Commentary by Dennis L. Haarsager

No segment of the broadcasting industry has worked harder to make the digital transition work than has public broadcasting. For example, NPR’s Tomorrow Radio project may keep digital radio from joining the dustbin of failed technology innovations. Many public television stations offer enhanced DTV services to realize promises they made to the public and to funders. Both public media are expanding the frankly limited conception of the designers of digital radio and television.

In spite of these innovations, there is so much going on in the development of alternative digital distribution platforms that neither medium should bet the farm on over-the-air digital broadcasting. On the television side, here’s why.
When the FCC began a rulemaking to anoint an “advanced television’’ standard in 1987, the focus was on stuffing a high-definition television signal into a 6-MHz channel. It was a different world. MS-DOS was still the dominant computer operating system, the Internet and World Wide Web were as a practical matter about six years away, and the first DTV station (WRAL in Raleigh, N.C.) eight years away. Cable was less developed and DBS didn’t exist.

We still live with the vision of digital TV distribution set in that context 16 years ago. In 1987, many knowledgeable people thought HDTV couldn’t be stuffed into the 6-MHz channels stations had available. But the designers of the 8-VSB system were determined to fool Mother Nature. They succeeded heroically and the FCC adopted the system as a standard.

That heroism came with a price, however. The designers had to use certain assumptions or planning factors, some borrowed from the early 1950s when analog television was being built out. For example, the design assumes the signal will radiate from high-power “big stick’’ transmitters and be received by directional antennas mounted 30 feet above ground and pointed at the transmitter. Both assumptions work to the disadvantage of public TV because our transmitters are too often located away from the main cluster of commercial transmitters in a market. The plan for DTV also adopted a version of the analog reliability standards, even though a viewer’s subjective experience is very different when the reliability threshold is crossed in digital vs. analog broadcasting [1998 commentary].

Miss Piggy has shown that if you put enough makeup on her you get—well—a nicer-looking pig. Engineers responded to well-documented DTV reception issues in early generations of DTV receivers and made improvements. Most promising is the Enhanced VSB (E-VSB) proposal that will be voted on by members of the DTV standards body this spring. It aims to provide a more robust reception environment, though at the cost of a substantial amount of the digital capacity (given improvements in compression technology since the ’80s, it will still accommodate HD).

E-VSB will require new equipment for broadcasters. Consumers with earlier DTV receivers will be able to receive the signal, but they will need new receivers or set-top boxes to take advantage of the more robust reception. Tellingly, the installed base of receivers nearly nine years after WRAL-TV began digital broadcasting is close enough to zero that we can probably disregard the earlier receivers.
This is the technological setting for a creative proposal under consideration by APTS. In exchange for a trust fund, perhaps financed from spectrum auction proceeds, public TV stations would switch off their analog transmitters earlier than expected and move to digital-only broadcasting, or DOB. Turning off the analog transmitters could bring some real cost savings to public television. APTS is being cautious, but I’m going to argue here for extreme caution.
The proposal carries risks—substantial ones in my judgment—which APTS is studying. Perhaps most troubling, it takes our eye off the digital distribution ball, which is still in constant motion.

If we go with the DOB strategy, we may venture as close to “betting the farm’’ as public TV has come in our careers. We’d be betting that cable and DBS will be the primary delivery platforms for nearly all our users and services.
Yes, analog over-the-air (OTA) viewing is shrinking, but we need to find other distribution mechanisms like OTA that allow us to control the distribution and content aspects of our business.

Cable and DBS are insecure distribution partners. We may have a very insecure future if we cast our lot with cable and DBS monopolies that assert they have First Amendment rights to establish their channel lineups. Public TV has tried hard to negotiate suitable carriage agreements, with minimal success. Many station leaders cannot even find out whom they should call at the cable company to talk about their plans.

Viewers won’t be eager to put analog out to pasture. Public TV may not be able to make a quick exodus from the analog channels. E-VSB and the coming dual-mode analog/digital receivers will help somewhat, but with digital it’s still mostly about the antenna, so the new transmission technology probably won’t yield a large number of digital OTA viewers. For the second or third TV in the exercise room, analog’s forgiving nature carries advantages viewers will miss.

As long as most stations in the market are available on analog channels, viewers won’t have sufficient incentive to buy a digital converter or put up a separate antenna just to receive digital public TV.

There are still 17.5 million television households who receive OTA signals only, plus millions more who use it for second, third or fourth receivers and millions more (mostly DBS users) who rely on OTA for local stations.

Hidden in the national figures are very different OTA numbers for various regions, which may be politically significant. In a number of metro areas, 30 or even 40 percent of households get their TV over the air (see below). Even in markets with higher cable penetration, there are many OTA households: 1.1 million in Los Angeles, more than 700,000 each in Chicago and New York, more than 600,000 in Dallas.

Where many rely on antennas
Areas with these relatively low shares of households with cable or DBS
59.6% — Harlingen-McAllen, Texas
66.0% — Fairbanks, Alaska
67.5% — Boise, Idaho
68.3% — El Paso, Texas-Las Cruces, N.M.
70.5% — Fresno-Visalia, Calif.
70.8% — Salt Lake City, Utah
72.3% — Anchorage, Alaska
72.4% — Minneapolis-St. Paul-
72.7% — Dallas-Fort Worth-
73.2% — Houston

In some areas, opting out of OTA would make little sense. Would stations in areas with low cable and DBS penetration—Alaska and Texas, for example—go along with the digital-only strategy? If they kept their analog transmitters going, would they be barred from benefiting from a trust fund or other positive consequences of the strategy?

We can’t expect to subsidize viewers’ purchase of DTV boxes to sweep away the analog holdouts. Propo-nents of the DOB strategy cite Europe’s happier experience with DTV, but we’re not in Europe. Their DTV standard was built with more modern planning factors and is relatively robust. Governments there have traditions of intervening in the marketplace; ours doesn’t. I can’t imagine that set-top boxes will ever effectively become a welfare item in the United States, no matter how compelling the case for vacating spectrum might be.

New distribution technologies are competing with OTA, cable and DBS. Other video (and audio) transmission platforms such as broadband Internet service have come along with compelling potential for our public services. Broadband now serves one in four homes and many are installing home digital networks that can move content to television monitors.

While we’re considering a lifetime commitment to Miss Piggy, inventive folks on neighboring farms are busily implementing what Harvard professor Clayton Christensen labeled “disruptive technologies.’’ These are technologies that enable our competitors to do what we do, only cheaper, faster and/or better. He has a very broad meaning for technologies: not just the familiar meaning (digital vs. film photography, for instance), but also new methods of accomplishing work (nurse practitioners vs. doctors).

The FCC has been advancing one such disruptive technology, created ironically from frequencies that TV broadcasters had occupied. It has opened up by auction spectrum a variety of innovative broadcast applications in the so-called Lower and Upper 700 MHz bands, reclaimed from our UHF channels 52-69. This new category of services, in the works since 1999 and still to be named, will use a cousin of the European digital transmission standard, making them suitable for use by mobile and “poorly antennaed’’ receivers.

Spectrum scarcity may be losing its meaning. Some “open spectrum’’ advocates argue that the very notion of dividing up spectrum is an outdated artifact of dumb receivers that require more interference protection than state-of-the-art “smart” devices need. Some of these devices already are in use today and others will enter the marketplace rapidly because they are defined in software, not in chips, and have shorter evolutionary cycles. When they become more widespread, the value of our spectrum could actually decline. Some argue that, with these new technologies, low-power broadband services can actually co-exist with current services (such as within public TV’s current channels) with only a minimal increase in digital interference “noise.”

There are alternatives to turning off our analog transmitters all at once. These would carry less risk and nearly equal or possibly greater benefits. I’ve proposed two to APTS —one I’d label “fade to black” and the other “bring ’em on.” The “fade to black’’ scenario would have analog stations reduce power when certain DTV access benchmarks are met, ultimately getting to zero. The “bring ’em on’’ alternative throws our lot with the smart-receiver advocates mentioned above. Public broadcasting would make its current analog and digital spectrum available for coexisting ultra-wideband Internet service operations if they gave us free or reduced-cost access to their customers.

These aren’t, of course, the only alternatives or even the best ones. We ought to be giving substantial thought to how we can thrive in the multiplatform world emerging around us. Those platforms will include DTV, cable and DBS—and analog transmission, for some time to come.

At the same time, we urgently need to invest in serving the public through new platforms such as DVD and broadband that compete with our traditional broadcast delivery.
In a media landscape where the communications equivalent of corporate agriculture is the norm, public broadcasting has a disproportionate number of local “family farmers.”

America’s real family farmers have depended on subsidies for decades but are now finding that, along with businesses everywhere, they need to change and operate smarter, not just with ag technology, but also with the technology of how they do business. Public broadcasters need to do the same.

Dennis L. Haarsager is an associate v.p. at Washington State University and g.m. of public TV stations KWSU and KTNW-TV and Northwest Public Radio. Until last fall, he spent two years as principal consultant to the CPB Digital Distribution Implementation Initiative. He writes the weblog at www.technology360.org/weblog.

Web page posted March 8, 2004
Current
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2004

EARLIER ARTICLES

Public TV continues to lobby for FCC must-carry protection for digital channels.

LATER ARTICLES

Majority of public TV stations appear to back further exploration of APTS strategy, February 2004.

OUTSIDE LINKS

Haarsager's weblog on media technology.

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