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Broadcasters Cut Out of Convergence

Industry is working out new ways to reach the smaller screens 1/13/2006 07:00:00 PM Eastern

As the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and MacWorld Expo wound down earlier this month, the takeaway was that the long-hyped “convergence” between the broadcasting, consumer-electronics and computer industries had finally become a reality.

Hardware manufacturers at CES demonstrated a range of non-traditional devices for viewing television, from cellphones to portable video players to computers with digital-video- recording (DVR) capability. Internet companies, not setmakers, grabbed headlines with deals, including Google’s plan to sell CBS programming through its new Video Store.

Over at MacWorld Expo, Apple chief Steve Jobs announced that iTunes had sold 8 million music videos and TV shows since mid October and that NBC will sell clips from Saturday Night Live on the online service.

What is unclear is the role broadcast stations will play in this new era, particularly in regard to mobile viewing. The mobile devices touted at CES all have a common thread: They don’t rely on broadcast spectrum. Most of the broadcast networks’ new video services aimed at computers or handheld devices are delivered via the Internet, usually through a cable company or telco, or over cellphone networks. And most don’t offer stations a cut of the revenue pie.

“I was at CES, looking at these things, and it gives one pause,” admits Clear Channel Television Chief Technology Officer Mike DeClue. “The broadcasters are definitely getting squeezed.”

CBS SHARES THE WEALTH

NBC and ABC aren’t offering affiliates anything from their iTunes deals, but CBS has taken a different tack, sharing some of the 70% cut it gets from Google Video Store with the network’s affiliates, according to a person with knowledge of the deal. Google gets the remaining 30% of revenues from sales of CBS shows at $1.99 each. (CBS is also sharing revenue with owned-and-operated stations in markets where it is offering video-on-demand programming through Comcast.)

Lynn Claudy, senior VP of science and technology for the National Association of Broadcasters, says broadcasters “should be uncomfortable” with the new focus on small screens and Internet video. While some stations are providing short news and sports clips through mobile-phone providers, and companies like Modeo and Qualcomm are developing systems that deliver live video to cellphones, Claudy thinks stations need to reach consumers directly. That may require broadcasting to mobile devices.

“For a broadcaster, the best deal is never going to be giving your product to someone else to distribute to their customer,” says Claudy. “You want to use your own infrastructure. The future of broadcasting is more tied to the control of getting that signal to consumers than getting it to a headend or central office and getting a check.”

That will be a challenge. The U.S.’ Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) digital-television standard was not originally designed to support mobile reception, which was one of the criticisms station groups like Sinclair Broadcasting leveled in the late ’90s when they pushed for a switch to the European DVB digital television standard. The industry is still working to tweak the U.S.’ VSB (Vestigial Sideband) transmission scheme to enable mobile reception, and a solution is several years away.

STILL A WAY TO GO

“In terms of reaching mobile devices with ATSC digital-television [DTV] signals, the short answer is, we are not there yet,” says ATSC President Mark Richer. “The challenge is that we have to develop the solution with a certain level of backwards-compatibility so existing viewers can still get high-definition TV and other services.”

In 2004, ATSC approved a standard called Enhanced-VSB that is supposed to allow digital reception under weaker signal conditions. The system allows stations to lower their data rate in exchange for making the DTV signal easier to receive. But Enhanced-VSB has yet to be commercially deployed, and ATSC is pushing for further improvements.

In addition to improvements in receiver technology and video compression, U.S. broadcasters might need a different transmission architecture to support mobile DTV applications. Richer says some markets may have to adopt the European approach of using multiple small transmitters, all broadcasting on a single frequency, to ensure handheld reception.

Stations have already tried to make a business of transmitting content to computers through their digital television spectrum. In the late ’90s, various station groups joined forces behind DTV “datacasting” concerns like Geocast that promised to deliver content to PCs, but those efforts disbanded as DTV receiver chips were slow to make it into PCs.

CAPITOL SHIFTS ITS FOCUS

Capitol Broadcasting is still testing a DTV datacasting service in Raleigh, N.C., but has shifted its focus to providing content through cellphones with its News Over Wireless service (see B&C Special Report, 1/2 issue). “For us, it’s not an issue of 'Does digital TV data broadcasting work?’” says Sam Matheny, general manager of News Over Wireless. “It absolutely works. It’s a matter of getting a critical mass of devices out there to receive content.”

ABC isn’t currently involved with any efforts to support datacasting or other ancillary services through the digital spectrum, says Albert Cheng, executive VP of digital media for the Disney/ABC Television Group. Instead, the network is delivering content to the broadband and mobile-phone platforms. Part of that is technical expediency, because there is already a large number of PCs and cellphones ready to receive content. The other reason is the challenge of reaching a datacasting agreement with more than 200 broadcast affiliates, which Cheng says is “like running Congress: Everyone has a different agenda.

“We want to do something national,” he adds. “[But] we only own 10 stations, so it’s quite an effort to corral the different parts of it.”

One encouraging thing to come out of CES for broadcasters was the introduction of thumb-size DTV receivers that fit into the USB port of a laptop or PC. Such devices could help promote the delivery of DTV content to PCs. And as the downloading of Internet video becomes more popular, DeClue thinks it may overload existing broadband networks and force content distributors to look for new delivery channels. Who better to distribute a download of Desperate Housewives to 500,000 PCs in a market, DeClue asks, than broadcasters?

“There is already an overlaying mechanism that can distribute content really seamlessly, in an encrypted fashion, in a local market,” he says. “That is DTV.”

 

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