NAB To Grab Lab Tab

Job One for planned broadcast R&D center: Improve 8-VSB DTV reception

The National Association of Broadcasters, at its winter board meeting next month, is expected to approve funding for a non-profit research-and-development center, a move that would all but assure its establishment sometime next year.

The so-called broadcast lab, which would operate independently with its own board and staff, would strive to identify and develop technologies that improve over-the-air TV (and possibly radio) service, cut costs or support new businesses, proponents of the lab say.

Even so, the broadcast lab would come many years and tens of millions of dollars after the cable industry funded its own CableLabs near Denver. That organization has nurtured many technological innovations.

If the broadcast lab happens, it would likely spend its infancy trying to fix the 8-VSB digital-transmisssion standard, whose poor performance has contributed to the slow roll out of broadcasters' digital TV service.

Plans for the lab took shape at the Association for Maximum Service Television, a long-standing group of major broadcasters focused on technology and spectrum management. The MSTV board approved the plan last fall but lacks sufficient funds to get the lab off the ground.

That's where the cash-rich NAB comes in. Over the years, the NAB has amassed an $80 million rainy-day fund, the accumulated profits of its technology convention in Las Vegas each spring.

Proponents of the lab are looking for $5 million in start-up funds. They hope that the NAB will kick in $2 million and that the consumer electronic manufacturers will contribute another $2 million. Individual broadcasters would ante up $1 million. It is unclear how the lab would sustain itself.

MSTV President David Donovan will make the pitch for the lab to the NAB joint board on Jan. 12, the first day of the board's four-day meeting in Palm Springs, Calif.

Donovan declined to provide any details about his proposal and even to discuss its prospects. "We are looking forward to working very closely with the NAB on this issue," he said.

Approval of the labs is not certain, but proponents and NAB sources believe the votes are there. Many of MSTV's board members also sit on the NAB board, including NAB's Television Board Chairman Michael Fiorile, president and CEO of the Dispatch Broadcast Group.

Triumph for Chapman

One stumbling block could be NAB's radio board members. The lab was conceived as a television R&D center. To garner radio support, it may have to embrace some radio projects.

Establishment of the lab would be a personal triumph for Gary Chapman, president of LIN Television, who has championed the lab for at least a decade, first as joint board chairman of the NAB in the early 1990s and now as a member of the MSTV board. Chapman could not be reached for comment last week.

Through the lab, proponents hope to breathe new life into over-the-air television as it makes the transition from analog to digital. Although lab proponents continue to see the need for must-carry rules requiring cable systems to carry local TV stations, they believe it is important to maintain broadcasting as an independent medium that can be enjoyed the old-fashioned way: directly off the air.

Five years ago, under a congressional mandate, the FCC gave each TV station a second channel for digital broadcasting with the understanding that broadcasters would eventually turn off—and turn in—their original analog channels. The switch to digital creates new opportunities. In digital, TV stations can broadcast HDTV or several channels of standard-definition TV. They can also broadcast data or offer Internet access.

But so far the transition has not gone smoothly. Many TV stations have been dragging their feet on building DTV stations to run in parallel with their analog stations because of the lack of revenue to offset the costs. Few HDTV sets with over-the-air tuners have been sold, and other digital services haven't advanced much beyond trials.

The transition has also been hobbled by the DTV's transmission scheme. In early testing, the 8-VSB signal proved less rugged and more susceptible to interference than expected. But rather than replace the system and disrupt the complex channel-allocation plan, leading broadcasters have decided to fix it. Indeed, according to one source, the lab's first goal will be to develop an improved off-air tuner and antenna for DTV sets.

By focusing on the receiver, lab proponents hope to encourage funding and participation by the receiver manufacturers. The FCC has mandated that manufacturers phase in DTV tuners in all TV sets by July 2007.

CableLab spends big

The CableLabs since it began has helped speed the introduction of technologies that have transformed the medium—fiber optics, digital video compression, regional system hubs and cable modems, among them.

Told of the expected NAB vote, CableLabs President Richard Green said he was delighted. A broadcast lab would not only benefit broadcasting, he said, but also cable. If broadcasting can speak with one technical voice through its lab, he said, it will be easier to work out broadcasting-cable compatibility issues.

But Green felt that broadcasters might be short-changing the lab. In his first year at CableLabs, he said, he had a budget of around $9 million. The current budget is $37 million, with a staff of 150, he said.

"It's a start," Green said of the broadcasters' plan. "And the really important thing is that they get it started."