Broadcasters float other uses for HDTV frequencies

PBS, Fox, Abel propose interim alternatives

Originally published in Current, Feb. 28, 1994

By Steve Behrens

Having gotten the FCC to set aside a second channel for every TV station to make the transition to high-definition TV, broadcasters--PBS included--are now talking publicly about using those channels for other purposes.

The boldest, Rupert Murdoch and top executives at his Fox Broadcasting Co., last month raised the possibility of "a Fox family" of digitally compressed TV services, apparently going out on what the FCC calls "advanced television" (ATV) channels.

John Abel, executive v.p. of the National Association of Broadcasters, was more cautious in January when he went public with his personal vision--the NAB hadn't endorsed it yet--of nonvideo services that could be accommodated on the ATV channels, along with digital video.

And PBS's chief technologist, Senior Vice President Howard Miller, has been talking for months about public TV's need for an exemption from the FCC's expected rules governing the ATV channels. If the FCC goes along, public TV stations could use their ATV channels--6 MHz channels, mostly in the UHF band--for targeted educational services during the tough years of the transition to HDTV. For example, the added channels could carry the classroom ITV programs that may be displaced in some cities if stations schedule longer hours of Ready to Learn programming for preschoolers, Miller says.

If the FCC permitted any of these things to happen, it would be a clear departure from the original HDTV transition plan, which was to permit broadcasters to use the ATV channels only for simulcasting their regular programming in HDTV--and only for about 15 years, until all TV broadcasting has switched over to high-def.

Technology won't stand in the way. Though the proposed standard for HDTV doesn't talk about alternative use of its digital compression and transmission technology to transmit multiple subchannels of standard NTSC video, as Murdoch proposes, that capability was built into the technology more than three years ago, according to D. Joseph Donahue, senior v.p. for technology and business development of Thomson Consumer Electronics, the maker of RCA video equipment.

All that the FCC's standard-setting committee would have to do, Donahue says, is agree on documentation--"write a couple more pages to define how you send out [multichannel signals], so the people who build hardware know how to build it."

The technology may be a snap, but the policymaking and politics won't be.

Miller warns that broadcasters must be cautious in proposing a change of plans for the ATV channels.

He says PBS supports broader use of the ATV channels, "as long as we don't lose sight of the basic purpose" of the channels, which is to facilitate the transition to HDTV. Miller fears that a "sole focus" on exploiting the multichannel potential of the ATV spectrum would cause the FCC to reconsider its decision to grant the ATV frequencies.

Just as the FCC should be sensitive to broadcasters' needs, the industry must be "sensitive to a rather difficult set of precedents set over many years that determine the flexibility the commission has to respond to industry interest."

"If you're going to introduce multiple-content channels as alternatives to HDTV, then the question arises, why should all those channels have been allocated to existing licensees?"

In informal talks with FCC staffers at least 18 months ago, Miller says, one of the words that came up is "Ashbacker."

Once upon a time, in Grand Rapids

The word refers to a 1946 Supreme Court decision, Ashbacker Radio Corp. v. FCC, that, along with later rulings, encourage the commission to hold hearings before dishing out slices of spectrum.

In the Ashbacker decision, the high court slapped the FCC for granting an AM frequency in Grand Rapids, Mich., to another firm, Fetzer Broadcasting Co., without giving a hearing to Ashbacker, a competing applicant.

"We only hold that where two bona fide applications are mutually exclusive, the grant of one without a hearing to both deprives the loser of the opportunity which Congress chose to give him," the court ruled.

Exactly how this narrow ruling would apply to the ATV channel situation is open to debate.

Some attorneys say "the spirit of Ashbacker" permits the FCC to give broadcasters a second channel for simulcasting but requires the commission to hold a hearing if the second channel is to be used for new services, according to a prominent communications attorney, "but there are no cases that say that." For the FCC and the courts to come up with this conclusion would require "a definite expansion of Ashbacker" over strenuous opposition from broadcasters.

Years ago the commission expanded TV broadcasters' rights, letting them transmit separate teletext material on their vertical blanking intervals, the attorney recalls. "[Commissioner] Anne Jones asked how come we're letting the broadcasters have it?, and everyone turned around and said shut up, and they went and voted for it." Teletext didn't amount to a gold mine, but multichannel digital broadcasting could.

Expect a fight

"The TV industry is not going to give up on this one," the attorney says.

Observers speculate that broadcasters can argue that the assignment of ATV channels should be exempt from competitive hearings because it's only temporary (until the transition to HDTV is complete) or because the transition to digital TV broadcasting, including some amount of HDTV, is as important to the public interest as the transition to HDTV alone.

But they can expect a fight from the cable industry as well as some public-interest and minority groups.

"Under the Communications Act, any time frequencies are available in the public-trusteeship mold, they are supposed to be put up for competition to determine who would best serve the public interest," says Andrew Schwartzman, director of the Media Access Project public-interest group.

"The premise of setting aside extra bandwidth for HDTV was already stretching the law," he contends.

If broadcasters come back to the FCC with proposals to use the ATV channels in other ways, he expects they'll meet opposition from mobile-radio interests--whose desires for expanded UHF frequencies were thwarted by the FCC's HDTV plan--and from minority groups that want broadcast channels.

Indeed, Pluria Marshall, longtime critic of white dominance in broadcast ownership and chair of the National Black Media Coalition, says the proposals to give extra channels to existing broadcasters "sounds like 'them that got are them that get.' "

Marshall thinks broadcasters should be "forbidden to do anything but HDTV" on the ATV channels that they are given.

How it would work

That prospect doesn't appeal to some broadcasters--both public and commercial. HDTV production and transmission equipment will cost millions per station, high-def programming will be expensive and scarce, and few are confident that enough viewers will buy premium-priced HDTV receivers to expand the high-def viewership very quickly.

When commercial broadcasters think of HDTV, they see rising costs without a compensating rise in ad rates. Pubcasters likewise don't see where they'll get the money to make the transition.

Until high-def public TV programs become widely available--and high-def receivers find their way into many homes--the ATV channels could carry HDTV signals part-time and digital versions of several channels of standard NTSC signals the rest of the time. Or nonbroadcast services, such as computer data for downloading into "smart" TV sets.

Miller believes the electronics industry can turn out relatively inexpensive set-top digital receivers that would convert the multichannel digital signals to analog for viewing on standard TV sets. Viewers who have bought new HDTV sets also could watch--their sets would process the NTSC signals, adding scan lines to give the appearance of higher resolution.

Because the "channels" would be nothing more than tributaries to the digital bitstream, the overall capacity of the channel could be subdivided in many ways, with faster bitrates to capture sports action or slower for static pictures or data downloading.

Broadcasters as "have-nots"

Fox Broadcasting executives picture this as an important option for broadcasters, who are otherwise being left out of the information superhighway hullabaloo.

"We cannot allow broadcast TV to become a have-not of the information superhighway," Fox Broadcasting Chairman Lucie Salhany told Fox affiliates last month, according to press reports.

For one thing, broadcasters would maintain the strategic advantage of having multiple broadcast channels when they go to cable operators seeking carriage, as suggested by Preston Padden, Fox's executive v.p. of affiliate relations and an accomplished Washington operative. "Having our own independent pathway to the home is going to be the best guarantor that the wired [superhighway] medium is going to be interested in having the product there, as well," Padden said in an interview with Electronic Media.

Murdoch and his Fox managers told affiliate stations Jan. 22 that Fox would seek to air such multichannel services as news and movie channels.

But the Fox proposal would be hardest for the FCC to countenance. The Fox proposal is "basically, forget HDTV," says Miller. "Though it's very interesting--very exciting, actually--it steps over the comparative hearing process."

As something of a narrowcaster specializing in young viewers, Fox can readily see other channels it might want to operate, but many general-audience broadcasters fear multichannel digital broadcasting would simply multiply the number of competing channels, along with programming costs, while further subdividing the available advertising income.

"This would be fragmentation to the max, since if you are in a three-station market, you would suddenly have a 15-station market with all channels vying for programming and ad support," said Abel at NAB's legislative forum Jan. 15 in Carlsbad, Calif.

Abel said the switch to digital gives broadcasters the chance to provide multiple services, feeding fax machines, pagers, computers as well as high-def pictures.

For example, he said, a broadcaster transmitting a Honda commercial could also transmit a data file listing colors and dealers to be stored in viewers' sets in case they want to call up the information. "The content of these additional digital transmissions can be anything that can be broadcast to addressable receivers."

"If any of you watched [the] NFL playoff games, you saw the perfect attempt at this very application," Abel said, referring to an ad for the Prodigy online computer service that plugged football stats available on Prodigy. Broadcasters could be delivering that data themselves, or delivering it in partnership with Prodigy over the digital broadcast signal.



To Current's home page

Current Briefing: Public TV and digital TV.


Web page created Jan. 27, 1996
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 1996