NAB Explores UK's Freeview DTV Success


Hoping to find a viable business model for broadcast digital TV, the National Association of Broadcasters is taking a long look at Freeview, the multichannel DTV service that has taken root in Britain.

NAB Joint Board Chairman Phil Lombardo ordered the fact-finding effort after a meeting with Granite Broadcasting President Stuart Beck. "We talked about the fact that we ought to really look at this, see what they're doing over there and see if there is any applicability over here," Lombardo says.

Freeview is a consortium of the BBC, News Corp's BSkyB, and transmitter manufacturer Crown Castle. Launched in October 2002, Freeview offers up to 30 video channels and 15 audio channels. By July, it had 800,000 subs and was signing new ones on at the rate of 100,000 a month.

As its name implies, the service is free, after a one-time equipment cost for a digital set-top box or integrated set. Because the service is free, the set-tops don't need encryption technology and so are simple and inexpensive. The boxes, essentially digital-to-analog converters, sell for just $80.

Lombardo and Beck are members of The Broadcasters Digital Cooperative, an ad hoc group of broadcasters exploring various proposals for digital spectrum.

NAB Chief Technologist Lynn Claudy will be spearheading the inquiry.

Many broadcasters are investigating various ways of turning their DTV stations into multichannel TV platforms. To make it work, Lombardo and Beck think broadcasters need to combine their spectrum. "You would have to get whoever the broadcasters are in a given community to want to work together to develop a business plan," says Lombardo.

That part of the model might not translate to the U.S. Although Lombardo says he doesn't know whether any U.S. variation would be free or not, several broadcasters who have touted DTV multicasting favor a model that would give them a piece of the subscription revenue that drives cable and satellite.

BROADCASTING & CABLE has learned that Cache Networks, based in Princeton, N.J., will unveil a version of the digital multiplexing system at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Jan. 9. President Jim Heard envisions a dramatically enlarged universe of free signals.

A number of broadcasters, including Beck, Fox Affiliate Board Chairman John Tupper, and Mike DeClue, senior vice president and director of engineering for Clear Channel TV, have lately been encouraging broadcasters to think inside the box, as in digital set-top, and to explore teaming on an over-the-air service.

Many of those broadcasters believe that the service is technologically feasible but has some obstacles that could make it a nonstarter. "Technically, it could be done tomorrow," Tupper says. "Politically, I don't think it will ever happen. Fox is going to be hesitant to go into a business that competes with cable while it is negotiating rate increases for its news programming or regional sports channels."

NBC, ABC and CBS have all expressed interest in working with their affiliates to use their DTV stations for a multicasting service, a mix of local and national programming, high-definition TV and standard-definition TV. Most do not think such a service can make it without cable carriage, either negotiated or mandated by FCC in new must-carry rules. Cable carriage would overcome reception problems and obviate special set-top boxes. The broadcast services will simply be delivered with the rest of cable's offerings.

If the Freeview, or payview, model gains traction, could it jump-start the broadcast labs? Lombardo doesn't think so. "They are two separate issues. A broadcast labs, if it came into being, would be designed to improve the DTV signal."