CURRENT ONLINE

"When people get a chance to see those pretty pictures,
they want those pretty pictures in their homes,"
says Pingry from KCTS.

Here's yet another proposed use for those HDTV channels: keeping public broadcasting afloat

Originally published in Current, April 10, 1995

By Steve Behrens

Those extra TV channels--the ones that the FCC plans to give to every TV station for the shift to digital transmission--have a new purpose every time you hear about them.

First, in 1992, they were going to bring in the sharp, clean, wide-screen high-definition TV of the future. That was justification for the commission's plan to give 6 MHz of prime UHF spectrum to each existing TV broadcaster.

Then broadcasters began talking about all the great digital services they could transmit over the ATV ("advanced television") channels if the FCC would give them "spectrum flexibility" to compress multiple channels of standard-definition TV and non-TV data into the bitstream.

And now Republican leaders in the House say that public broadcasters may be able to replace their lost CPB funding by renting out or otherwise making money on those ATV channels.

None of this will happen immediately. The FCC may not consider the proposed Grand Alliance technical standards for digital TV transmission until the spring of 1996, and the standard-setting may be further delayed.

That leaves plenty of time for dreaming, fretting and maneuvering over the rules that will define how that valuable spectrum can or should be used.

The range of choices for public broadcasters may be especially broad: providing several narrowcast channels to schools or the public, pioneering in high-definition where commercial broadcasters currently fear to tread, or regarding the spectrum as a moneymaking asset--alimony received in public broadcasting's pending divorce from Congress.

By the time the digital transmitters fire up, of course, compression technology may have advanced to the point that all of these purposes can be served simultaneously.

PBS's chief technologist, Senior Vice President Howard Miller, has been talking about serving at least two at once: narrowcasting multiple channels to schools during the day and broadcasting a single HDTV during part of primetime.

How could public TV get into high-def when the biggest commercial broadcasters are hesitant to invest in the transition?

The scenario, promoted by Miller and Burnie Clark, president of KCTS in Seattle, among others, would use the same economic incentive that drove the TV industry's successful switch to color broadcasting, decades ago. RCA, which wanted to sell TV sets, invested heavily to begin color broadcasting through its subsidiary NBC, Miller points out. Viewers began seeing color TV in store windows, and they wanted it.

"Someone has to do the same thing in HDTV," he says, and that someone may be public TV. He has been exploring the possibility of support, comparable to RCA's backing of color, from the hardware companies in the Electronics Industries Association (EIA), and the level of interest among public TV stations.

The demonstration project might begin with public displays of high-def public TV programming in electronics stores and shopping malls, beamed over the digital public TV satellite system, Miller says. Though the signal wouldn't have to pass through local stations, the displays would show their on-screen IDs, inserted from a memory chip in the decoder.

"It depends on [the manufacturers'] level of interest how expansive they want to project to become." It could be a brief, limited demo or a real introduction of HDTV service.

Last summer, Miller and Clark were talking with manufacturers about demonstrating HDTV with feeds from the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, but ironically NBC pulled the plug, declining to permit access to the games. NBC is no longer owned by a company that makes TV sets.

Wary about the offer

With its high startup costs and uncertain consumer response, HDTV is not the safest use of digital technology, many broadcasters fear.

"There's a lot of forces out there that basically are not behind HDTV," says Steve Welch, director of broadcast and production operations at KCTS. "They're looking at a revenue stream that's easy to get."

Among them are many public TV stations, eager to replace the income that may be lost in congressional appropriations.

Rep. Jack Fields (R-Tex.), new chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, said in House debate last week that he and Rep. John Porter (R-Ill) have been talking with top pubcasters about revenue-generating uses of public TV stations' ATV channels.

CPB officials have not embraced the idea as salvation. Doug Weiss, a technology researcher at the corporation, suggests that the idea should be explored but that the technology won't be ready for the market for five or 10 years. Even then, no one should assume that renting out the spectrum would work economically. It won't be easy to get top-dollar for leasing out spectrum that's fragmented into 6 MHz chunks, he believes, and digital compression may expand the supply of spectrum to such a degree that its market value will plummet. "There could be so much spectrum that it would not make a big pot of money."

Separately from the Fields proposal, both the Republican and Democratic drafts of the upcoming major telecom bill in the Senate propose "spectrum flexibility." Broadcasters could provide various "ancillary and supplementary services" over the additional ATV channels so long as they broadcast at least one free "advanced television" service. If the bills don't require that free service to be HDTV, it won't take up the whole channel, leaving room for data broadcasting services, narrowcasting, pay movies or other uses.

Even at the FCC, high-def has receded so far into the background that when FCC Chairman Reed Hundt spoke about use of the ATV channels at the Consumer Electronics Show Jan. 6, he used the initials "DTV" ("digital television") and spoke delightedly about new multichannel opportunities rather than the glories of improved pictures and sound. The commission realizes "it will be much easier for broadcasters to do more for kids if they can exploit digital technology to increase the total number of programs they deliver," Hundt said. And DTV will also make available more channels for news coverage and for free access time for political candidates.

Broadcasters have been telling Congress and the FCC that they need the flexibility to be able to compete with wired carriers of the infohighway. And they'll need cash from multichannel digital services to pay the high costs of buying new digital hardware, says Doug Wills, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.

"It is also important to underscore that broadcasters get very nervous about government proposals that attempt to dictate what programming they produce," says Wills. He refers to dictates that broadcasters use ATV channels for HDTV.

"Shell game" and "kiss-off"

Though broadcasters and politicians may love the multichannel possibilities of those ATV channels, others are outraged by the presumption that every company that already has a TV channel should get another one that can be used, with digital compression, to transmit five or six additional programs at once.

This crew includes all the people who'd like a channel for whatever purpose, and were told by the FCC for years that they were all taken. Some have-nots want the spectrum for broadcasting, some for mobile communication, and others are libertarian futurists who imagine a future of freely available spectrum, says Andrew Schwartzman, executive director of the Media Access Project.

Schwartzman, who generally sides with the have-nots, says "spectrum flexibility" would be a one-time-only "kiss-off" for public broadcasters and a gigantic giveaway to commercial broadcasters. Channels set-aside in 1992 for one purpose--HDTV--would be given exclusively to broadcasters for other purposes.

But even the broadcasters may not benefit as much as they expect, he warns. "There is a shell game going on here." Once Congress gets accustomed to auctioning off spectrum for billions and finds that broadcasters are getting rich off their ATV channels, "it's going to start charging, at the very least, usage fees."

"It's not going to be a giveaway in the end," Schwartzman predicts.

Major corporate players like AT&T also stand ready to question "spectrum flexibility" if broadcasters get what they want.

Only one use of the ATV spectrum would require the full 6 MHz that the FCC plans to give to broadcasters, says Robert Graves, an AT&T v.p. who handles video policy." AT&T's rather simple view is that if broadcasters are not going to make a commitment to do HDTV, then there's no valid policy reason for the commission to give the broadcasters the full 6 MHz," says Graves. AT&T, which hopes to make chips for HDTV sets, is part of the Grand Alliance of companies now completing work on the transmission standard.

They see it, they want it

So, when will Americans get to have HDTV?

"I don't think the scenario is never, but when?" says CPB's Doug Weiss.

Even if broadcasters avoid HDTV at first, they will eventually come around, according to Weiss and Marc Pingry, the KCTS videographer who shot PBS's recent "Over America" special in high-def. Pingry expects that cable, direct broadcast satellite and videotape will introduce HDTV and that broadcasters will rush to join the bandwagon.

During field shoots, Pingry has watched as everyday people get their first look at HDTV on his monitor. Their eyes get wide and covetous. "It just blows my mind that we haven't let the public in on this."

Skeptics denigrate HDTV as "pretty pictures," but Pingry takes that as a "backhanded compliment."

"When people get a chance to see those pretty pictures, they want those pretty pictures in their homes."

But will people pay the price? Pingry doesn't have much doubt. He says HDTV sets using the Japanese analog standard already are selling for $3,000 in Tokyo, not much more than some American couch potatoes pay for big projection sets, and those prices will fall.

Getting into HDTV

"Let's go out and do some true market research," says Jim Kutzner, v.p. of operations at KTCA in Twin Cities. That would give broadcasters, including public TV, a feel for what is realistic to expect and do.

Shooting all of the PBS primetime schedule in true high-def won't be affordable in the near future, he believes. But producers can begin to equip themselves for part-way alternatives such as crisp digital production using the wide-screen aspect ratio of HDTV but without the expense of hardware that can handle the higher resolution.

Ordinary analog videotape also can be "very effective" when up-converted electronically for display on high-def systems, though much lower in quality than real HDTV, Kutzner said at the Advanced Digital Telecommunications Planning Seminar, sponsored by the Central Educational Network and WMVS/WMVT in Milwaukee, March 6-7 [1995].

Not every station will equip itself to originate programs in HDTV from the start, Kutzner predicts. Some will take care of their HDTV obligations by passing-through a high-def signal from PBS, and will need only a new transmission system for their ATV channels, at the cost of $800,000 to $2 million.

Under one scenario, the stations would share access to a number of regional production centers equipped for HDTV.

KCTS's Burnie Clark has been talking with other station managers about stepping into HDTV, according to Welch. The Seattle station is one of a handful of U.S. production houses working in HDTV, and last April decided to buy its own Sony production equipment.

Clark proposes to work with a series of stations, one at a time, giving their staffs production training and experience, using KCTS equipment to make a series of short high-def video portraits of each city, Welch says.

As a second step, Welch adds, producers of major public TV series with long-term rebroadcast potential would step up to HDTV. The additional production cost, which Pingry says is now an average of 50 percent, would come from equipment companies.

The idea got a positive reaction from some EIA-member companies, but pubcasters have not yet made an official proposal, Welch says.

Whatever digital TV turns out to be, Oregon Public Broadcasting is already recruiting citizen leaders to fundraise for the digital conversion, says development executive James Lewis. The network's $23 million campaign goal will include $10 million for the conversion of its studios, five TV transmitters and four radio transmitters.

During planning, the purpose of the conversion has shifted, Lewis says. "When we went into it, three long years ago, we assumed high definition, but more and more ... what's in the foreground is multichannel."

Setting the standard

One of the much-delayed milestones in the path to HDTV will be the FCC's adoption of a transmission standard, perhaps next year. Peter Fannon, the former pubcaster who is head of the Advanced Television Test Center, Alexandria, Va., says that final tests will begin soon on the Grand Alliance system jointly proposed by five electronics companies.

If the FCC acts on a transmission standard next year, as the commission's current timetable dictates, broadcasters with ATV channels will have to be on the air by 2002 and the transition will be complete by 2011, when they hand their old channels back to the commission.

The Grand Alliance companies are united in their work on HDTV transmission, Fannon says, but have competing ideas about how to add the capability for multichannel transmission. Separately, the communications industry's Advanced Television Services Committee will complete its views on multichannel.

Complicating the picture is the arrival of a Swedish technology somewhat analogous to cellular telephone transmission, which uses multiple noninterfering transmitters on the same frequency within a relatively small geographic area.

NAB will have a demonstration of this technology--COFDM (coded orthogonal frequency division multiplexing)--at its convention April 9-13. "On paper, the system offers more flexibility than the technology used by the Grand Alliance system, says Doug Wills.

A consortium of U.S. broadcasters will propose an American version of COFDM to the FCC this summer, says Fannon.

Going with COFDM would be a major change but not a complete turnabout, according to Howard Miller. It changes the modulation approach of the Grand Alliance system but not its scanning schemes, sound systems, video encoding and decoding and other aspects, says Miller. He says PBS is officially neutral on the issue. "The advantages are not obvious to us, and it would result in a delay."

 

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