Don’t believe the hype
The transition to digital was supposed to revolutionize free TV. So what’s with the high-def reruns?
They’re calling it D-Day. That’s the day that every TV station in the country turns off their old analog TV transmitters, and digital television rules the airwaves.
“We’re going from the horse and buggy to jet propulsion,” said Rachelle Chong, a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. She currently serves on the California Public Utilities Commission, traveling around the state to help low-income and non-English-speaking communities prepare for D-Day—which, thanks to an act of Congress, is going to be February 17, 2009.
“This transition is a big deal, bigger than when television went from black-and-white to color,” Chong told SN&R.
On February 17, a little more than four months from now, your old analog set will no longer work—unless it’s hooked up to cable or a satellite dish, or unless you shell out $49.99 at Wal-Mart for a converter box. In fact, Chong says there are about 19 million American households at risk of losing television service.
Which is why, between now and D-Day, you’ll be hearing a lot more about digital television.
A lot more.
But most of what you’ll be getting from TV news and other media is a discussion about whether you need to buy a new television (you don’t), and whether your picture will be stunningly clear and detailed (depends, but probably not).
That’s too bad, because the transition to digital television was supposed to be more than just an upgrade in picture quality. It was also supposed to usher in a revolution in TV content and the quality of free television.
Ten years ago, Vice President Al Gore equated the digital transition to “the difference between a one-man band and a symphony.”
To Gore, DTV promised “an explosion of opportunities for broadcasters,” and it promised better TV for viewers. “We do expect that we’ll see … even more and better educational and children’s programming … free TV time for candidates for public office … digital broadcasting will be more dynamic and more flexible, more competitive and more interactive—and potentially more responsive to the needs and interests of the American people.”
So now we’re just four months away from this revolutionary new era in television. What will the broadcast landscape actually look like in 2009? Well, it will look something like basic cable.
In the transition to color TV, something brand-new suddenly appeared in our living rooms. The transition to DTV will be far less dramatic. Like the man said—the revolution will not be televised.
Slicing and dicing the airwaves
Digital television has been 20 years in the making. In the late 1980s, new high-definition televisions were beginning to appear in Japan, which promised stunning picture quality, but which also demanded a lot more bandwidth than standard television broadcasts.
At the same time, there was increasing demand for more radio spectrum. Mobile devices—such as police and fire radios, cordless phones and later the spectrum-hungry wireless industry—were running out of room for their broadcasts.
Those industries and regulators at the FCC began to eyeball the underused portion of the television broadcast spectrum—particularly the ultra high frequency band, once the home of independent and low-budget local broadcasters—and to ponder more lucrative uses for that broadcast real estate.
By this time, advances in compression technology—the same technology at work in your MP3 player or the YouTube videos you watch at work—made it possible for a television broadcast to be jammed into a much smaller slice of TV spectrum than anyone previously imagined. Digital television was born.
“It’s like going from dial-up to broadband,” explained David Lowe, general manager over at the public TV station KVIE Channel 6. “We’re going to be able to slice and dice that spectrum in all sorts of ways.”
Under the new digital regime, each station still gets the same slice of the broadcast spectrum—6 megahertz—that they always did. But now they can fit two, three, even six channels of information in that same space.
Instead of just managing a broadcast station, one television signal, the station will now have 19.2 megabits per second of bandwidth to work with.
At this point, it’s worth noting that DTV is different than high-definition television. DTV is how the program gets to your TV set—it’s broadcasting in ones and zeroes. HDTV is more of a measure of “how much” information gets to your set. HDTV sets boast 1,080 lines of TV picture, far outstripping the 480 lines of picture you get on a standard TV screen.
A standard-definition television broadcast, the picture you grew up watching, only takes up about 3 or 4 megabits per second of broadcast bandwidth, thanks to digital compression.
By contrast, an HDTV broadcast takes up about 11 megabits per second. But even with HDTV in the mix, it’s possible for any broadcaster to break their channel up into several different subchannels.
KVIE Channel 6, for example, is going to offer one high-definition channel (6.1), and two standard-definition channels. These SD channels are 6.2, basically a time-shifted version of their main programming; and 6.3, or “KVIE V-me,” which is PBS programming produced for a Spanish-speaking audience.
That still leaves KVIE a few megabits per second to play around with. Lowe has been researching the possibility of broadcasting to a new generation of phones and other mobile devices that will be able to receive digital television. KVIE could—when the market was right for it—set up another subchannel devoted to pushing content to such mobile devices.
“Imagine being in the store with your child. You hand her the phone and say, ‘Here’s some Caillou or here’s some Sesame Street. Please quiet down while I get some milk. I think it’s going to be the next big thing,” said Lowe.
There’s still a lot of opportunity to come up with new programming, entire new channels of content geared to local audiences.
“I could see, for example, a California channel, that’s one opportunity,” said Lowe. The station already produces several distinctly regional and California-oriented shows—including California Heartland, ViewFinder and Central Valley Chronicles. “There is no shortage of producers who’d like to be seen on our stations,” said Lowe.
In fact, broadcasters are still getting their heads around the idea of broadcasting on multiple channels, or multicasting.
“There’s now a tremendous amount of inventory that needs to be filled,” Stan Statham, president of the California Broadcasters Association, told SN&R. “I don’t think there’s a pingpong channel out there yet, is there?”
When these guys talk about “slicing and dicing the spectrum,” you get a little bit of a sense of what Gore meant when he talked about the “one-man band and a symphony.”
But there was a caveat. Digital television would only bring all these great benefits if the public demanded them. “The fact that it is so limitless … makes digital broadcasting the Wild West of the television age,” Gore said. “If we don’t map out some of that terrain for public purposes—if we don’t carve out meaningful public space on our newest public airwaves—we could lose that opportunity for good.”
In 1997, Gore set up a committee, the smartly named Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters, or just the Gore Commission for short.
TV was changing. It was entering a new and potentially very lucrative era. In the old 1950s era of broadcasting, TV stations had some burden to bear in exchange for their broadcast licenses—and the millions of revenue that every broadcast license is worth. As the technology evolved, so should the responsibilities that come along with being a licensed broadcaster—or so the thinking went.
In October of 1998, the Gore Commission came back with some recommendations. The FCC ought to “adopt a set of minimum public interest requirements,” including public-service announcements and public-affairs programming. Policies should be set encouraging broadcasters to use some of their new spectrum on behalf of local schools, libraries and nonprofits. The panel also took a hard look at the role of TV in political campaigns, and called for free airtime for political candidates.
Ten years later, on the eve of the digital TV revolution, the FCC has yet to make those rules.
The great DTV giveaway
So just what are the local broadcasters actually planning on doing with their digital capacity? SN&R surveyed each station. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most candid was KVIE, the local public broadcaster.
But we mostly found commercial stations to be unsure, or not very forthcoming, about their DTV plans.
Broadcasters were reluctant to get into the digital television business in the first place. Every piece of the broadcast chain had to be replaced—cameras, monitors, antennas—millions of dollars in additional costs to broadcasters.
In order to do it, they had to be coaxed with free airwaves. In 1996, Congress awarded every full-power TV station in the country a second channel to use, absolutely free, to smooth the transition to DTV. One station would carry the old analog broadcast, and the other would host the station’s digital transmission.
Critics called the award of the extra spectrum a “giveaway” worth some $70 billion. But on February 17, those analog channels go away for good—the FCC will later likely auction them off or divvy them up into long-term leases for wireless companies.
Keep in mind, if you have cable or a dish like most people do, you don’t have to worry about losing TV at all. For about 85 percent of TV viewers, the folks who have at least basic cable, there probably won’t be that much difference—at least not until they invest in new, expensive high-definition sets.
In fact, you can already find the digital broadcast on your cable box—if the local cable provider has agreed to carry the digital channels. (That’s an issue that’s still being fought out by broadcasters, cable companies and the FCC.)
In Sacramento, Channel 3 is channel 3 on your cable box. KCRA’s subchannel, which right now just includes weather and news headlines, can be found at 193 on your cable box. If you have a new TV with a digital tuner, or a digital converter box, KCRA will show up as channels 3.1 and 3.2. The first channel is the regular broadcast in HD. The second is a standard-definition broadcast with ’round-the-clock weather and news updates.
The company that owns KCRA, Hearst-Argyle, also owns KQCA Channel 58. With the digital technology, that means Hearst could control up to a dozen different television channels on your local dial. So what do they want to do with all that TV real estate? “I’m not going to get into our thought processes at this time,” said Elliott Troshinsky, general manager at KCRA and KQCA.
He said that it has been a challenge to find programming that makes sense for the broadcaster’s bottom line.
“You can always find a program to fill a channel,” says Troshinsky. “Whether that’s a program people will sit down and watch, and whether that program will draw advertisers, that’s a different matter.”[page]
Over at KXTV Channel 10, they’re even more secretive about their plans for new digital programming.
“I can’t tell you what we’re doing, because that would be giving away a trade secret,” said Russell Postell, general manager. “Everyone is looking at everything,” he explained. “If you have any good ideas, give me a call.”
Over at KOVR Channel 13, station manager Bruno Cohen says he can’t see any way to make money off of multicasting. That station plans only to use its broadcast spectrum for one single high-definition broadcast. “We just don’t have a business plan that makes any sense to us.”
Part of the problem, he says, is that broadcasters are worried about fragmenting their audiences and drawing viewers away from their main programming into some niche programming—diluting the already finite amount of ad revenue there is to go around.
“It’s not like, if you build it, they will come,” said Cohen, of potential advertisers.
So for now, KOVR and KMAX Channel 31 will remain just one channel each—both broadcasting a single HD transmission.
Cohen noted that it would be possible—and entirely legal—to lease some of their bandwidth to other companies, who in turn could use that spectrum purely for data applications, for downloading movies to subscribers, or even as a radio channel for the dispatch operations of a taxi company or pizza company.
One of the odder facts of the digital TV revolution: Broadcasters don’t have to provide high-definition television at all. In fact, broadcasters can use the bulk of their spectrum for uses entirely different than TV.
“There aren’t any rules, they can do whatever they want,” explained Chong.
Bob Ramsey, vice president and general manager over at KTXL Fox40, says his station is close to making a deal with an outside company to provide programming for one of their subchannels.
“There are a lot of options that companies are putting together out there for fully programmed digital channels,” Ramsey explained. In fact, just a couple of days before speaking to SN&R, Ramsey had been pitched by MGM—the entertainment giant which had been in Sacramento pitching its own “plug and play” channel, called This TV, to local station producers.
MGM’s formula is simple: all reruns all the time, drawing from MGM’s extensive film and TV library. As a bonus, the network name allows for all sorts of clever ad slogans like, “THIS is the place,” and “THIS is what you’re watching!”
What it won’t contain is local content, or any original content, other than voice-overs between shows.
Ramsey wouldn’t say what company his station was considering contracting with. But his station was one of the first to experiment with a plug-and-play network. For about nine months, the station broadcast the Tube Music Network, out of Florida. It was basically a video music channel put together by some of the same folks who founded MTV and VH1—produced specifically for digital subchannels on free TV stations. In fact, Tribune Broadcasting, which owns Fox40, had planned to put Tube Music on all of its stations. But Tube Music went under in October of 2007.
This TV is just one of many potential new suitors for local stations. There’s the .2 Network, pronounced “Dot-Two Network,” which boasts affiliates ready to go in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, and will offer up a mix of blockbuster movies and classic TV shows like Gidget and The Flying Nun.
Music videos, old TV shows, all piped in from national outfits. Is this really a revolution in broadcast television? Is the broadcast landscape really going to look any different than basic cable? “Probably not,” says Troshinsky.
Without a plan
So much for jet propulsion, so much for the symphony. All the hubbub about revolutionizing television rubs up against the same old programming recipes, the same old limitations on ad revenues. Very few organizations or activists are actually watching this part of the media world. One of the few is the Benton Foundation, a media watchdog organization based in Chicago.
“Digital television could be a shot in the arm for broadcast television—which has been losing market share to cable and the Internet,” said Kevin Taglang, policy analyst for the foundation.
“This is a technology that allows broadcasters to do amazing things. But there’s no plan. There’s no creativity. Instead of revitalizing this important public resource, the broadcasters are just going to go back to the vault and show us stuff they’ve already shown us before.”
Taglang’s boss, Charles Benton, served on the Gore Commission back in 1997. (The foundation is in fact named for his late father, former U.S. Sen. William Benton of Connecticut. Benton also published the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1943 to 1973.)
In an Op-Ed entitled “‘This’ is our digital future?” the younger Benton lamented the FCC’s failure to follow up on the recommendations that he and his follow panelists made back in 1998.
“Using the public airwaves only for profit maximization isn’t right,” Benton said. “Especially when you get the airwaves for free.”
If the broadcasters need help figuring out what to do with the spectrum, Ron Cooper would be happy to help. “These additional channels are a unique opportunity to serve a more diverse and more local audience,” says Ron Cooper, executive director of Access Sacramento, which produces the public-access cable channels 17 and 18.
He calls the new digital multicasting scenario “a license to print money.” And he faults broadcasters for not being more forthcoming about how they are going to use their spectrum, which is still, after all, the public airwaves. He sees an opportunity for stations to do more public-interest programming, more news and more political coverage. What if, for example, you could watch an entire River Cats game on Channel 13, or Hornets football, or high-school football?
“We have the best AAA baseball team in the nation. What about just covering every home game?”
Or with local school districts to help round out the educational programming—required by the FCC. “I’ve certainly seen 10-, 11-, 12-year-old kids that are so sophisticated they could host their own shows.”
Cooper is especially interested in better coverage of politics and policy. Every year, Cooper and the other members of the Sacramento Media Group question and cajole local broadcasters about what SMG believes is a dearth of public-affairs programming.
“The typical response is, ‘We only have so much time,’” Cooper explained.
“Well, these channels give the local broadcasters a lot more room to play with. All the excuses they have been giving us for all these years are now gone.”
Shut up, sit down, tune in
All of the broadcasters SN&R spoke to said they do a good job of serving the public interest with their programming. But what about the “explosion of opportunities” for the public envisioned by Gore?
“What he was doing was getting up on a soapbox. We all do it,” said Chong, the former FCC commissioner. While she worked for the FCC, Chong was often critical of what she believes are overly burdensome public-interest requirements. “There’s a little thing called the First Amendment,” she told SN&R, which makes it tough to tell broadcasters what to do with their licenses to the public airwaves.
Meanwhile, most of the discussion and news reporting about digital television continues to concern whether Wal-Mart or Best Buy sells the best converter boxes, and whether the February 17 change means it’s really time to upgrade to a new HDTV set.
“Most people are confused enough at this point,” Cohen explained. “They just want to make sure their television works.”