Hit the showers

Sinclair's Smith shouldn't try to take DTV rhubarb into extra innings

The lights dim. Kids run through the emptying stands popping beer cups. The groundskeepers move out to repair the field. The final score glows from the scoreboard. Can there be any doubt that the ballgame is over? None, unless maybe you're David Smith, the maverick Baltimore broadcaster who presides over the Sinclair TV group, the nation's 10th largest.

Despite all evidence that the battle over the digital transmission standard is over, Smith persists in fighting on. With the help of his indefatigable lobbyist Mark Hyman and capable engineer Nat Ostroff, Smith continues to insist that broadcasters reject the 8-VSB standard and substitute the COFDM system.

But it's time for Smith to go home. By continuing to challenge 8-VSB, he is now doing more harm than good. He is seriously jeopardizing broadcasters' tenuous hold on their DTV channels.

In August 1999, this magazine ran a cover story on Smith's long campaign to dump 8-VSB. Smith and a growing group of other broadcasters complained that 8-VSB was a poor choice to lead broadcasting into the digital age. They said that the system was so vulnerable to multipath interference that indoor reception was out of the question and that it was totally unsuitable for the mobile services some had in mind. The FCC should substitute the superior COFDM system or at least allow broadcasters to choose between the two.

So persuasive was Smith-and so unsatisfactory were the first generation of 8-VSB DTV sets-that the major broadcasters and trade groups last year agreed to do some side-by-side comparisons. They formed a task force that dutifully tested the two systems.

That task force's finding:

8-VSB is, indeed, flawed, but COFDM is not much better. The best thing to do, the committee said, is stick with 8-VSB and do all you can to improve its performance. The findings were approved overwhelmingly by the broadcasters who funded the tests in San Diego.

Ballgame over. Right? Wrong. Sinclair's Smith and Ostroff came out of the meeting (as they had gone into the meeting) complaining that the COFDM receivers used in the test were unsuitable. Lack of proper front-end filtering made them far more susceptible to interference than actual COFDM TVs would ever be. They demanded a recount-that is, another round of testing. If you press most transmission engineers, they will concede that Smith and company are probably right. COFDM is superior (so was Beta). But there is more than science involved here.

The National Association of Broadcasters and the major broadcasters who grudgingly endorsed 8-VSB realize that switching the transmission standard might require the FCC to make new DTV channel assignments to broadcasters. And that process carries the risk of broadcasters' losing their channels. Remember, powerful forces, including Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, think it was a bad idea giving broadcasters all those channels in the first place.

Right now, McCain's only allies are public-interest groups that have little influence while the GOP reigns in Washington. But he could be joined anytime by the wireless industry, which can throw its weight around and has an insatiable appetite for spectrum.

Even if broadcasters stick with the 8-VSB program, there is a chance they could lose their digital spectrum. I don't think anybody is going to allow broadcasters to sit on the spectrum much longer. They need to put it to some good use. The industry has had those channels tied up for 50 years-first, because its use would cause interference and, now, because it's needed for the digital transition.

The good news for broadcasters is that the settlement of the 8-VSB debate seems to be giving some new life to high-definition television-the most likely (and perhaps best) use of the DTV channels. Long on the sidelines, Sony is expected soon to offer HDTV sets, now that it has confidence that the industry won't switch the transmission standard.

That vote to stick with 8-VSB was 29-3, and, if you took it again today, it would be 30-2 (Bud Paxson is no longer backing Smith, but Harry Pappas is). Rather than pursue the lost cause, Smith should join his broadcasting colleagues in their effort to improve 8-VSB. His time and money would be welcome, I'm sure.

Jessell may be reached at jessell@cahners.com or at 212-337-6964.