With the certainty of a single digital television (DTV) broadcast standard in place, all industries need to move forward cooperatively to make DTV a reality for U.S. consumers.
As one of the original developers of DTV technology in general and inventor of the vestigial sideband (VSB) transmission system in particular, we were understandably pleased by the recent reaffirmation of the ATSC standard by broadcasters and the FCC. That is not to say that we should not continue to explore possible enhancements in VSB performance or address broadcasters' changing needs. Indeed, a number of U.S. receiver manufacturers and chipmaking labs are moving full speed ahead with improved designs for standard applications as well as proposing extensions to provide additional robustness and flexibility. And, because the ATSC standard was designed to offer plenty of headroom, we are confident that future VSB enhancements will be adopted.
With the transmission standards dispute behind us, what are the remaining roadblocks to widespread DTV acceptance? There are four: (1) the lack of compelling digital content; (2) affordability of consumer equipment; (3) cable carriage and interoperability issues, and (4) the digital copyright protection situation. Not surprisingly, these issues cut across multiple industries — broadcast, consumer electronics, cable and programming — and therefore pose some thorny challenges for both the private sector and U.S. policymakers.
U.S. broadcasters have made impressive strides in terms of investing in digital TV transmission equipment. With more than 180 stations currently broadcasting a digital television signal, the industry is far outpacing the DTV transition timetable established by the FCC. While some stations have encountered problems relating to tower siting, construction and the like, the vast majority of major-network affiliates in the 30 largest media markets are broadcasting in digital. And special credit goes to the growing number of stations in smaller markets — such as Quincy, IL. (number 161) and Salisbury, MD. (number 162) — that have begun DTV broadcasting well in advance of the government-mandated schedule.
The 2006 deadline for effecting the digital conversion remains possible, at least theoretically and assuming that the key industries come together to reach agreement on the previously listed issues. The real barrier to this timetable is that the transition has not yet captured the hearts and minds of American consumers. Consumers need a reason and the means to adopt this new technology. Without compelling content, be it HDTV or datacasting or other new applications, DTV will flounder. Without equipment that the average consumer can afford, DTV will become a footnote in the digital age.
Where broadcasters can do their part is in the all-important area of digital programming, a critical element in the overall DTV equation. Despite the leadership provided by CBS, which accounts for the lion's share of high-definition television (HDTV) programming, the major commercial networks have yet to feed, let alone originate, their fair share of digital content. In addition to its commitment to prime-time programs in HD, CBS has offered an unequaled amount of HDTV sports programming, including the AFC playoffs, the Super Bowl, the Masters and the NCAA Final Four.
Were it not for the efforts of CBS, PBS and a small number of independents, the early adopter would have virtually nothing to watch in true HDTV. Besides HDTV, innovative applications of multiple standard-definition television (SDTV) and datacasting may also prove compelling and help drive the DTV market. The larger point is that absent far greater amounts of compelling digital content, consumers have little incentive to make the investment in digital television equipment, especially at today's price points.
Given the paucity of digital programming, it is nothing less than remarkable that initial sales of consumer DTV equipment have posted such respectable numbers. According to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), nearly 650,000 DTV displays and receivers were sold last year, and CEA predicts the figure will top 1 million units this year. This sales curve compares favorably with that of color TV, for example, which needed a full decade to reach sales of a million units annually. Many will point to the small number of tuners as an indication of DTV's failure, but we feel that the high number of sales of digital-ready sets proves consumers are ready and want DTV. The industry just needs to give them a reason to go out and buy that tuner or integrated set.
With some 70 percent of all U.S. TV households getting their local, over-the-air stations via cable, the cable industry also needs to be on board if the digital television transition is to prove successful. Headway is being made on the issue of compatibility between cable equipment and consumer electronics products.
The digital must-carry controversy, on the other hand, has proven far more difficult. Ignoring the pleas of broadcasters that cable companies should be required to carry each station's analog and digital signals during the transition, the FCC ruled preliminarily that cable operators must carry only one or the other. Logically, if a broadcaster is only upconverting analog content it is hard to understand why a cable company should be required to carry two versions of the same content. On the other hand, if the broadcaster is providing HDTV or SD with additional data content, the consumer is provided with benefit beyond analog television. In this case it is hard to see why the cable company should not provide the full, undiluted benefits of broadcast-quality DTV or true digital HDTV. This paradox represents a huge potential barrier on the road to digital television.
No one said that the transition to digital television would be easy. We have known all along that broadcasters, manufacturers, cable operators and Hollywood would have to work together to shape the kinds of lasting solutions that will allow this fledgling medium to succeed. Now that the transmission standards debate is behind us, resolving these few remaining issues will help deliver digital television to consumers who, in the end, will determine the true success of the DTV transition.
Richard M. Lewis is senior vice president of technology and research for Zenith Electronics Corp.