High-Tech Crusader

Ostroff resolves DTV battle, gears up for high-def push

Three months ago, Sinclair Broadcasting's Nat Ostroff did an about-face. He ended a five-year battle that pitted his scrappy Baltimore-based station group against the entrenched powers of the TV business.

After relentlessly pushing the FCC, Congress, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Association to dump the U.S. DTV-transmission standard, Sinclair's technology chief switched gears. The move caught the rest of the industry off-guard. Although critics accused him of slowing DTV acceptance, Ostroff makes no apologies.

He credits his turnaround to Zenith. After five generations of refinements, Zenith DTV receiver chips have overcome their most glaring deficiency: the inability to hold signals without rooftop antennas.

"We have been misunderstood from the beginning," he insists. "Our fight wasn't to delay DTV but to expose its weaknesses and have them addressed."

Still, Ostroff ignited a firestorm when he issued his first warnings in 2000.

The problem, he said, was the U.S. method for controlling amplitude of TV-signal waves. That method, dubbed "8-VSB" for its eight-level vestigial sideband modulation, was too temperamental. Ostroff favored the more robust European method, known as "COFDM," short for coded orthogonal frequency division modulation. The uproar led to congressional hearings, a rushed round of testing by NAB and the FCC, and efforts to refine DTV technology by the consortium that sets U.S. digital-TV standards. None of those efforts satisfied Ostroff.

Critics, however, charged that his real motive was financial, not technical. Some TV-set makers, noting Sinclair's shaky finances and the huge bill it faced in equipping its 62 stations for DTV, sniped that Ostroff was trying to postpone his company's $150 million tab for digital-equipment construction.

"The consumer-electronics industry was anxious to get products into the field and mine the mother lode of high-def television," Ostroff says. Because most Americans rely on cable or satellite for TV, set makers didn't care about deficiencies in over-the-air broadcasts, he says.

Sniping aside, his complaints couldn't be dismissed. His accomplishments in TV technology are too pronounced: Ostroff has twice been CEO of leading TV-equipment companies and won an Emmy in 1990 for devising a way for UHF stations to cut power costs.

His TV career began in 1980, when he became vice president of technology at Comark Communications, a manufacturer of high-powered UHF transmitters. Not only did his work lead to a prestigious award, but the post introduced him to David Smith, a Comark co-worker who later founded Sinclair.

Ostroff was upped to Comark CEO in 1990 but joined Sinclair when Smith needed his help with constructing DTV facilities. As part of that strategy, Sinclair took an 80% stake in Acrodyne Industries, which makes digital transmitters. Ostroff founded Acrodyne in 1966 as a developer of solid-state electronics. Ironically, Acrodyne got into the TV sector after Ostroff left in 1980. Once Sinclair bought the company in 1999, Ostroff was again named its chief exec.

Although Zenith initially defended the U.S. standard from Sinclair attacks, it also responded to Ostroff's concerns—and improved its own performance. After all, Zenith holds the most-valuable DTV patents and has a bigger stake in the technology's success than most set manufacturers. "Zenith and Sinclair were snarling and hissing at each other," Ostroff admits, "but our goals were the same."

With the DTV issue resolved, Ostroff has a new mission. He says it's time for broadcasters to promote free HDTV as a viable alternative to pay TV. Why? It's a smart way for broadcasters to recapture audiences. Indeed, Sinclair has just produced a promotional spot for free HDTV and is offering it to other station owners. Ostroff thinks it's a winning strategy: "Nobody else is going to promote free over-the-air TV."


FCC tech chief takes stock

Departing head of engineering and technology says he's still optimistic about DTV, argues that 8-VSB does what it was meant to do-deliver television to the home