Something to watch

It'll take more than a CEA/NAB push for consumers to buy DTV

One of the more significant announcements at the recent NAB convention was that the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Association of Broadcasters will work together to promote digital television to consumers starting this fall. This is a statement that was too long in coming. If over-the-air distribution is going to be a factor in the future of DTV, it's going to take a Herculean effort to convince consumers that installing an antenna on their roof will bring them into the 21st century in television.

It may be too late. Most terrestrial broadcasters seem to be counting on digital cable must-carry to get into the nation's roughly 102 million TV households. Mitsubishi Marketing Director Bob Perry told a group of CBS engineers during NAB, "Due to the lack of digital must-carry, we could give a free DTV to every household in America, and only 30% would be able to watch it."

Distribution method aside, if this CEA/ NAB campaign is to be successful, the networks and independent station groups have to give consumers a reason to buy these new digital sets. Demand is crucial to DTV.

HDTV is another story. Stations could pull out all the stops and promote HDTV as a "unique" service. That's what Jim Goodmon, of Capitol Broadcasting's WRAL-DT, told the CBS engineers, although no one seemed ready to act on it. Getting a standard-definition digital signal on the air, they said, is challenging enough.

When the CEA/NAB campaign comes to a consumer's local market (Cleveland could be first), there has to be a stimulus to pay the extra $800 to $1,500 for a channel tuner. The reason cable has become so formidable is not its impressive technology: Consumers watch cable because there's attractive content—and lots of it.

The CEA/NAB effort was instigated by the Advanced Television Systems Committee in an effort to move the DTV transition forward. Or at least that's what ATSC Executive Director Mark Richer says. He was "proud" of the presentation of digital receivers, monitors and PC tuner cards displaying off-air signals and D-5 source material from a Sencore server at the DTV Store in the lobby of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Many visitors were impressed with the pictures, even with the signals being received off-air via 8-VSB modulation from local CBS affiliate KLAS-TV. The images, in some cases, were startlingly vivid.

However, there's still the issue of nothing to watch. Although many people came to gaze at the display, they soon left because nothing really caught their attention. That's a feeling I get from everyone I know who has a digital-TV set with a tuner. They brag about it for the first two months, then go quiet because there's nothing noteworthy coming from the set to talk about. Sure, the pictures look good, but ...

The situation seems hopeless.

I asked Richer and CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro whether funds for programming would be generated to develop new HDTV-exclusive shows or any digital shows, and they both essentially said no. Their campaign is designed to inform consumers in specific local markets that one or more stations are broadcasting DTV. That's it.

Shapiro, who says broadcasters alone should be responsible for programming, reports that first-quarter sales of DTV products for this year totaled 234,000 units. Of course, most of those displays do not have tuners (in fact, of the 648,000 sets sold since DTV's inception three years ago, only 27,000 have tuners in them), but the 158% increase in sales over the same time last year shows that consumers at least are beginning to recognize that digital sets are available.

So why not redirect some of the promotional money collected jointly from the CEA and NAB coffers to finance the hundreds of producers that would be more than willing to shoot in HD and get their programs on-air? This programming could be shared among station groups/affiliates. For example, the folks at WRAL-DT in Raleigh, N.C., have put together a captivating documentary on the relocation of a historic lighthouse there. The images captured with 1080i-native cameras would be appealing across the country.

Representatives from the CEA and NAB will meet in June (prior to the CEA's CEO Summit in Lake Tahoe, Nev.) to hammer out the details of their print, TV and public relations campaign. I suggest they play Bruce Springsteen's song "57 Channels and Nothing On" as the members walk in. If the goal is significant digital tuner penetration, the industry has to provide consumers something to tune in to see.