Broadcasters Cry Foul on HD Squeeze
Cable compression could cause a drop in picture quality, they argue
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/23/2008 7:00:00 PM
In this story:
In an economy that is putting more lines of worry on broadcasters' faces than there are of resolution on an HDTV set, picture clarity could become a critical selling point and a path to differentiate channels in a way never seen in the analog age, broadcasters say.
That's why some of those broadcasters are now smarting even more over last fall's FCC decision allowing cable operators to compress broadcasters' high-definition signals. That ruling came as part of the FCC's mandate that cable operators add must-carry stations' digital HD signals in HD. In short, they argue, what good is a great picture if most people don't get to see how great it is?
In an analog world, “You didn't necessarily differentiate product on quality of picture,” says David Donovan, who heads the broadcasters' chief spectrum lobby, the Association for Maximum Service Television. “In digital, you absolutely do,” he adds, pointing out that the satellite and cable industries have spent big bucks to say they have “more and better-quality HD.”
“[Broadcast HD] is higher quality because you have more bits devoted to high-definition,” he says. “When you get into the cable side, cable is allowed to compress those bits. Now the question becomes, can a cable subscriber actually get to see HD as it is being originally transmitted, in its highest quality? And the answer to that, under the commission's rules, is no.
“What gets passed through,” Donovan adds, “is essentially the same picture quality as cable HD, which drives everything to the least common denominator.”
The cable industry argues that it needs to use compression and switched-digital techniques so it can carry both the broadcast signals they are required to, and the broadband services the FCC is pushing.
“Pictures are in the eye of the beholder,” says National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow. “In this world, everybody uses compression technology and the most advanced [digital] technology to deliver services, video or otherwise, to the consumer. It's not lost on any of us in a competitive marketplace that when we are rolling out HD, or for that matter a standard digital picture or an analog picture, part of the consumer experience is what it looks like. So people are working as hard as they can, as creatively as they can, to deliver the best picture and the best product.”
The HD issue reportedly surfaced last week in Comcast's defense of moving channels from analog to digital. The FCC is investigating consumer complaints about those channel moves.
A Comcast source told B&C that the company listed the FCC's requirement of carriage of must-carry signals in HD as among its reasons for moving channels from the more bandwidth-hungry analog tier. The NCTA's McSlarrow said that the FCC's “inability to connect the dots” between requiring HD carriage, and cable operators' need to move some channels from analog to digital to make space for them, was “mind-numbing.”
Asked if he would concede that cable operators may need to move some of their channels from analog to digital to make room for the broadcast HD channels the FCC is requiring them to carry, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin last week said he would have to look at the capacity on each individual system before making that determination.
“The space issues are real,” said a Comcast source familiar with that company's response to the commission. “You have to figure out how to carry them,” the source added, pointing out that to add HD channels in each market, “Most of that is going to have to come from analog-to-digital migration.”
Viewers getting their HD over the air don't have to worry about how cable retransmits the signal, but another reception issue is creeping up. Last week, the FCC put out a public notice on the ground rules for allowing laptops and other unlicensed mobile devices to share the DTV spectrum with TV station signals.
Says broadcaster lobbyist Donovan: “To the extent that you went to purchase a high-definition television to get that best HDTV picture, interference is going to jeopardize that reception, and that means it jeopardizes the competitive posture of the television industry.”
Again in reference to Adam Smith's comments.
No, I don't agree that most cableco's use 6Mbps for HD; that is an incorrect generalization.
The bottom line is if over-the-air broadcasters are so concerned about HD image quality, which they should be, they should devote all of the ATSC bandwidth to it, and drop multicasting.
Ken Holsgrove - 12/3/2008 12:01:00 PM EST
Ken: You beg the question. You're right, they all compress a bit to jam two SDTV channels into their bandwidth along with the HD feed. But broadcast stations still don't compress their main HD feed as much as cable. Some cable systems are going as low as 6 mbps, according to one of the major compression technology vendors I talked to at the Cable-Tec Expo, whereas most broadcasters keep the bit rate at about 13, according to this vendor. Will you agree that's correct? If so, doesn't that mean that cable degrades HD a lot more than broadcasters?
Adam Smith - 11/25/2008 9:59:00 PM EST
In reference to Adam Smith''s comment.
Since he uses AVS as a data point to make his original comment, he should also take the time to review topics covering how local Digital TV stations use their allocated bandwidth, and how multicasting affects HD image quality. He is woefully misinformed on a number of issues, including:
- When multicasting, bandwidth for HD is always reduced ("only SDTV subchannels are compressed").
- Even with an antenna, HD image quality is reduced, if a local station is multicasting ("bandwidth max HD for free with an antenna").
And finally, as far as what networks want their affiliates to do regarding HD programming and multicasting, consider this: At AVS and most other on line and mainstream media, CBS is considered the gold standard for HD image quality. Why? Because the corporate mandate is no multicasting at the 14 network owned and operated stations, and many of the affiliated stations also follow this policy. This results in the best possible HD image quality for viewers of these CBS DTV stations.
Although I fully agree that cable should pass local HD to end users as they receive it, if DTV stations (associated with the Association for Maximum Service Television or otherwise) did not multicast and used all of their bandwidth to provide the best possible HDTV, he would have a much more creditable position in lobbying for cable to do the same.
Ken Holsgrove - 11/25/2008 2:04:00 PM EST
B'casters don't generally compress network as much as cable does. Most are broadcasting only two DTV digichannels in addition to their major "network" DTV channel, and their 6Mhz "pipe" generally allows them to send HD at the bit rate intended by the network; generally, only SDTV subchannels are compressed. Mr. Donovan has advocated that the FCC require cable system to deliver the full bandwidth being pumped out by the broadcasters, and that's the way it should be. Why should cable subs pay for degraded signals, when they could get full bandwidth "max" HD for free with an antenna (even well-aimed rabbit ears in song signal areas). Can Mr. Holsgrove provide evidence that network affils are compressing HD as much as cable? I don't think so.
Adam Smith - 11/24/2008 2:52:00 PM EST
Mr. Donovan''s point is all well and good, until one considers the number of network affiliate DTV stations that multicast. How does anyone expect cable, or DBS for that matter, to be concerned with HD image quality, when most local stations under cut it themselves?
Or do local broadcasters believe they alone should be allowed to degrade the HD signals from the networks?
Ken Holsgrove - 11/23/2008 10:05:00 PM EST
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