OPINION

Ramblings of a DTV Conspiracy Theorist

With apologies to Oliver Stone, I have a conspiracy theory of my own regarding the real reason for the recent delay in the transition from analog to digital television.

Those endless public service announcements reminding us all of the previous February switchover date have become just so darn popular with TV viewers that the government and broadcasters have decided to turn them all into a reality series. The estimated 6.5 million homes left in the U.S. that still aren’t ready for the switch will have to search, “Amazing Race”-style, across the country for the last 1,000 converter coupons available. They’ll be hidden in the more inhospitable, dangerous parts of the U.S. (the Everglades, Death Valley, Wall Street) and those who survive immunity challenges by successfully wrestling alligators, gila monsters and Bernie Madoff will also have to lose at least 50 pounds before choosing a bachelor/bachelorette to share their lives and digital converter box with.

A Digital TV in Every Pot

Sorry, for a minute there I was stuck in the dreaded Reality Show Feedback Loop. But it’s the best reason I could come up with for why everyone involved in this effort would ultimately roll over and go along with the Obama Administration’s push to delay the digital TV transition from Feb. 17 to June 17.

Apparently the administration and some consumer advocacy groups are determined to make sure that every single home in the U.S. that has a television set — every single home — will be ready for the future. We’re talking about a total universe of an estimated 110 million homes, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Granted, surveys from Nielsen show that many of those homes lacking converter boxes, or the coupons to buy them, are populated by low-income residents and senior citizens, and yes, they deserve every chance to get hooked up. But US$1 billion of broadcaster and government money has already been spent on the awareness campaign that has brought you those public service announcements (PSAs). Families and friends of those lagging in the transition effort should have been given the chance to help out, in addition to church groups and private aid agencies.

That’s right; it’s that wacky bailout craze currently sweeping the nation applied to your home entertainment center. But others among you can debate that particular approach to this problem. For this unrepentant geek, my annoyance is based on having to wait another four months to see if yet another promise of digital technology will be fulfilled, or scuttled, by those who bring it to us.

Sound Familiar?

You see, we just observed Groundhog Day, and like Bill Murray’s character in the movie about weird time-shifts going on in the town that celebrates a big furry rodent, I feel like we’ve been here before.

And I smell a rat.

Stop me if you’ve (digitally) heard this before.

Raise your hand — not the one holding the iPod — if you remember the buzz over HD radio, the technology that was going to spice up your morning commute by bringing you crystal-clear audio and multicasting technology in your car. Here, the hand of government reached out and touched a company called “Ibiquity;” the FCC made it the only approved technology for in-band digital signals on existing AM and FM radio.

Provided you had the right kind of radio, your car would be able to receive several versions of the same radio station signal; 102.1a, 102.1b, etc. One version would be the main signal, the one you’ve listened to for so many years. Another version would be all traffic reports, another would be all news, yet another would be commercial-free music. There would be more information crossing the digital readout on your car radio; which song, which artist, what year it came out, the latest headlines, stock quotes, sports scores. An application called “iTunes tagging” would allow instant purchases of that catchy tune you keep hearing.

Yet here we are, entering the fifth year of the HD rollout, and that buzz still has some static in the signal. The latest estimates as reported by Reed Business Information from last month’s Consumer Electronics Show had 600,000 HD radios in U.S. cars and homes. That was nearly double from the end of 2007, but lousy economics in the radio industry and a lack of consumer awareness are combining to keep the technology from hitting the kind of acceptance levels that were initially touted. Out of 13,500 total AM and FM radio stations nationally, just over 1,800 were broadcasting a digital signal, and about 900 were multicasting more than one channel — in most cases, all of two.

I remember filing a story for CNN from the 2005 CES in Las Vegas that trumpeted the coming showdown between free HD radio and subscription-based satellite radio. I still get a chuckle over that one, considering what’s happened with the government-approved merger of Sirius/XM.

The company has finally decided which channels to keep and which to throw away post-merger — let’s hear it for Underground Garage — and is offering up new tier-based subscription plans that give subscribers more choice (what a shock; listening to shock jock Howard Stern costs more). Will existing members of either Sirius or XM jump on the merged bandwagon? Will new membership fees help offset the company’s crushing debt load? It certainly doesn’t help when fewer cars containing satellite radios are rolling off Detroit’s assembly lines these days.

The one thing that could bring satellite radio back to mid-decade hype levels is a foolproof portable handset, unlike the first versions that left something to be desired in two key areas: reception and price. We’re all waiting. Meanwhile, Internet radio applications are now available for certain smartphones, including Apple’s iPhone.

TV Signals Crossed

In my opinion, there was more specificity about the promise of digital and satellite radio than has been promoted by broadcasters and the government with its digital TV rollout. Like HD radio, digital TV will allow for multicasting, as is already seen in some markets. The PBS station in Seattle, where I live, offers a perfect example of how multicasting can serve the community; one digital channel is for the Spanish-language V-me Network, another broadcasts cooking and travel shows.

Digital technology also offers the chance for viewers to talk back, vote and shop via their TV sets. Potential applications for social networks, e-commerce — and advertising revenue — abound. But interactivity and multicasting are strangely absent from the first round of PSAs that are now clogging up broadcast channels. The benefits talked about in these spots focus mostly on enhanced picture and audio; not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if you’re trying to cut through the clutter of information that all Americans now face thanks to all kinds of technologies, always play up the coolness factor.

The main point being made in the PSAs, despite an upbeat soundtrack and a bunch of smiling, diverse actors wearing “I Made The Switch” T-shirts, is an undercurrent of fear: your TV will go dark if you don’t have the box. That just plays into longstanding criticism that the digital TV switchover is nothing more than the mother of all tech handout legislation benefiting consumer electronics companies and broadcasters, as well as another Washington monument to their lobbying efforts

But now you have four more months to ignore the next round of digital transition PSAs. Unless they get Oliver Stone to direct them and Bill Murray to make a cameo appearance.

6 Comments

  • Aha! I hadn’t considered the reality aspect.

    I thought it was a conspiracy brought on by the cable folks since OTA reception appears to be a crap shoot dependent on the weather, the dog scratching a flea, or random movements of the inhouse AM bient air.

    Talk about now you see it now you don’t… It is hard to decide whether the roaming no signal box, the pixillation and/or stop movement (usually with the speaker’s mouth open) or the no sound is most aggravating since this occurs with no change in the settings or the outside antenna direction.

    Evidently this sort of OTA reception will be a given yea unto eternity until the cable companies manage to get everyone on their list even if we live in the hinterlands.

    Solution:get a library card!

  • It’s very simple. There are many people unemployed and many who cannot afford cable or satellite. They need their $40 coupons to keep their TV’s on. $40 may not seem like a big deal, but it is when you have to put food on the table.

  • I live about 50 miles out from the local tv stations. After the switch the reception will depend on weather. Bad weather, no signal. One of the stations sugests I install a dish w/rotor to recieve the signal. Cannot get cable here. Need 6 houses to the mile. There aren’t 6 houses on this road which is 2 1/2 miles long. Progress?

  • HD Radio is jamming our broadcast bands, especially on AM radio. Consumers have zero interest, and iBiquity has fudged the number of HD radios sold:

    "HD Radio spinners claim a breakthrough year: Pulling a fast one"

    "According to a press release from the Alliance 330,000 HD receivers were sold last year. This is a 725 per cent increase from the 40,000 sets purchased a year earlier and therefore 2007 was a ‘breakthrough year’ for the technology. In 2008 they will sell a million of the things."

    http://tinyurl.com/4zgkaw

    HD Radio is a farce!

    http://hdradiofarce.blogspot.com

  • I work in the broadcast equipment business and have been anxiously waiting for the benefits of HD radio and DTV.

    It’s just a matter of time before HD radio dies the same death as AM stereo and Quadrophonic Audio. HD radio is a disaster. I live in the DFW market. CBS radio took a relatively popular smooth jazz format station and made it into one of the -2 multicast stations.

    Nice idea in theory. They put on yet another "music to kill your parents by" station on the old analog channel and moved smooth jazz to -2.

    HD radio uses the original analog FM station’s signal as a fall back when the bit error rate is too high for the HD radio to decode the data stream. Since there is no analog smooth jazz station to fall back on, the HD suffers from the cliff effect of too many bad bits and drops out. High Def stutter…

    Unfortunately I did not find out about fall back until after I returned my first HD radio because of excessive drop outs and bought a 2nd receiver that was supposedly the best on the market.

    I have spent almost $2k to hear my favorite station in HD and it doesn’t work. Now I AM really pissed at the radio manufacturer.

    CBS did not stream the station on the ‘net citing "server issues". That eventually killed the HD station and smooth jazz format because there were no listeners.

    Makes perfect sense to me. Duke it out with all of the other "urban contemporary" stations in town or keep a moderately profitable smooth jazz format with no competition. "I will take business school dropout for a thousand alex.."

    HD programming is also very inconsistent. The local AM talk radio station broadcasts HD only during Rush Limbaugh. The rest of the time it’s just plain old analog.

    AM has the most to gain from HD’s digital quality but for some unknown reason they don’t take advantage of it.

    DTV will be the death of over the air TV. Texas has severe weather in the spring and fall. When the weather is bad the digital OTA (over the air)freezes and stutters from high bit error.

    If there is a tornado headed for my house I want to know where it is RIGHT NOW and not watch the freezes and stutters that eventually tell me where it was. Converter boxes will have the same problems with atmosperics.

    The reason I predict the death of OTA is cable does not suffer from atmospheric disturbances that plague OTA television.

    Unfortunatly people on fixed income who cannot afford cable must rely on OTA for their emergency weather broadcasts.

    The FCC held a gun to the head of the broadcasters forcing them to go digital or lose their licenses. The broadcasters have incurred the costs of building new towers, buying DTV transmitters, new antennas, high speed data links to relay the programming from the studio to the transmitter site (STLs) on and on. $10M or more per station is a commonly quoted cost estimate.

    Not to mention the biggest operating expense for a TV station- electricity. Look at your power bill and check out the cost per kWh. The average DTV transmitter consumes 1 Megawatt or more and runs 24×7.

    For the first 4 years no one was watching DTV except the station manager and chief engineer.

    There has been no additonal ad revenue generated by DTV to recoup the investment and operating costs over the last 5 years. Why would an advertiser pay more for spots on DTV that has no viewership when analog works just fine and reaches everyone?

    We need OTA television to provide local news and real time weather. You can’t get them from the centralized master control room in NJ. or Denver that feeds the up-links for DirecTV, Dish, or your cable provider’s head end.

    OTA digital TV needs a more robust transmission scheme with higher data rates and better modulation to support the error correction needed to overcome atmospherics and make over the air DTV work reliably.

    Most of that work can done by replacing the transmitter’s exciter. Unfortunately that will obsolete the built in tuner in your nice new shiny flat screen. A new set-top box will fix that problem but .. doesn’t one of those come free with a built in DVR from the cable company?

    Tune in for my next installment, "why the US adopted a second rate DTV system".

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