The eventual success of high-definition television (HDTV) rides on the country's conversion to digital TV (DTV). Last December, when Congress voted to set Feb. 17, 2009, as the hard date for turning off analog TV broadcasts and completing the switch to DTV in the U.S., it set a finish line for the long slog that has been the digital transition. But local broadcasters, network executives and Beltway insiders all say the home stretch of this marathon will be a steep climb.
Since most digital sets sold now and in the future will be capable of providing HDTV, the analog-to-digital conversion is vital to the adoption of hi-def. And that in turn is vital to the economic viability of HD programming, which right now is growing but still a novelty. For example, all-HD cable networks generally don't get audiences large enough to be measured by Nielsen.
Most large broadcasting groups are confident that they will make the analog-to-digital deadline, but some smaller stations remain a question mark. Regardless of size and capacity, it'll be a fight for everybody, with every legal or commission decision or deadline facing a host of technical roadblocks. And if too many stations are not ready to pull the plug in February 2009, look for legislators to move the finish line rather than face the wrath of constituents, particularly if consumer-friendly Democrats are still in charge.
For many, the first problem is one of real estate. At present, more than 500 stations—roughly 28% of the country's broadcasters—are switching from their current DTV channels and returning to their original NTSC channel assignments as part of the FCC's “channel-election” process, according to spectrum-watchdog group Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV).?
Another 100 stations are waiting for new DTV assignments, most because both their analog and their digital channels fall “out of core,” or outside of channels 2-51. UHF channels higher than 51 are being auctioned off to new users by the FCC.
“You're looking at a reasonable chunk of the industry that is going to have to move,” says MSTV President David Donovan.
The conversion, say engineers, will not be as easy as flipping a switch. Analog antennas at the top of a tower might need to be traded out for digital models, and transmitters and transmission lines may need to be changed. In cities where multiple stations broadcast from a single tower, that will require cooperation among local broadcasters.
That's hardly the only tower-related issue, especially for CBS. The broadcaster's owned-and-operated stations in both New York and Los Angeles have analog channel 2 assignments that they can't use for DTV, because of cable-interference issues, and out-of-core DTV assignments they will be giving up come that February day in '09.
And crowded urban transmission facilities, like the Empire State Building in New York, don't have the room to accommodate new equipment for the digital channels that will go live then. So broadcasters are looking for FCC guidance to help smooth the transition. “You don't just put up a third antenna on towers,” says CBS VP of Advanced Technology Bob Seidel.
Cox Broadcasting also faces some tough issues, particularly in the San Francisco market, where its KTVU Oakland, Calif., is currently broadcasting on channel 56 but will be moving to channel 44 for its DTV assignment (its current analog home is channel 2, with cable-interference issues). But in the law-and-disorderly reality of this switch, channel 44 is currently occupied by an analog station, CBS owned-and-operated KBCW.
“How do we do this in blink of eye?” asks Cox Broadcasting VP of Engineering Sterling Davis.
KTVU currently broadcasts off Sutro Tower, a communal tower that supports multiple Bay Area stations. The tower company has built one DTV antenna as an interim solution—an antenna that wasn't designed to accept channel 44.
“The plan is to clean off all the analog antennas on top of the tower and build new digital ones after the shutoff date,” says Davis. “That's the antenna part. But that doesn't solve the issue about KTVU being on channel 44 and one analog getting wiped off the top of the tower. Where does that station go temporarily?
“This is business clashing with reality and physics,” he adds. “There's going to be a lot of herky-jerkiness going on. This is just one small example.”
The amount of tower work needed nationwide may be too much for the limited number of crews available, say some broadcasters. There are also questions over the manufacturing capacity of transmission vendors.
In northern climates, there are only two summers left to perform the necessary tower work before the winter of 2008-09 sets in.
Cox's situation at WSB Atlanta is easy by comparison. Since that station is giving up its analog channel 2 and sticking with its digital assignment on 39, it can take the time to swap out the analog antenna at the top of its tower while continuing to broadcast from a side-mounted DTV antenna. Once a new digital antenna is in place on top of the tower, WSB will switch from the side-mount, perhaps leaving it up as a backup.
Dave Converse, VP of engineering for the ABC station group, expects the switch to be fairly smooth, because ABC owns the facilities and, therefore, controls all the pieces of the puzzle. Nine of ABC's 10 stations have elected to return to their old NTSC assignments in the VHF band (2-13 for DTV) and the network's Fresno, Calif., station will move from a DTV assignment on VHF channel 9 to its old analog assignment, channel 30, in that UHF-dominated market.
The older analog antennas and transmission lines used for years may need maintenance to support DTV, but Converse is optimistic: “I don't think I have any situation where I [can't] run a digital facility on analog with a very short outage.”
Davis says Cox is committed to meeting the FCC deadline and will “figure out a way to do it.” But from a national perspective, he isn't sure all broadcasters will do the same.
“It's a volume thing,” he explains. “How many of these things can you do? How many towers can you work on? For bigger station groups like Cox, they're doing their homework, and they'll pay the bucks.”
But Davis fears that some smaller stations won't be able to afford a similar approach. “It's going to be a mess,” he says, adding that the FCC may have to issue some temporary rules to help stations make it through the transition.
Scripps Howard has three stations currently broadcasting DTV on an out-of-core channel, and they will be moving to a currently occupied in-core channel, says Scripps VP of Engineering Michael Doback.
“There are problems logistically,” he says. “If you are assigned an in-core channel that is being used by a third party, it's virtually impossible to turn them off and turn you on Feb. 17. Sometimes you have to take down facilities, and there is red tape associated with that. The regulatory requirement could be onerous if the FCC doesn't expedite things like moving antennas from the side to the top.”
Doback is banking on the FCC's relaxing its criteria for tower changes to allow such upgrades to be quickly performed with a modicum of paperwork.
Even if the commission grants his wish, he doesn't expect channel-switching to be easy: “It's still going to be a big deal, and there is a lot of work to be done by a lot of groups.”
It might make sense, Doback adds, for out-of-core DTV broadcasters to continue operations on their current channels until they remove old analog antennas and ready their digital facilities for their new channels. But with the out-of-core frequencies scheduled for federal auction, it is unclear whether broadcasters would be allowed to do that.
“A lot of people underestimated how difficult this is,” he says. “It's a dance.”
Another hidden hurdle
Beyond channel election, other policy issues need to be resolved before the plug is pulled on analog, or “you can forget HDTV,” says MSTV's Donovan.
One “critical” HDTV concern, he says, is cable's “involuntary downconversion” of the HDTV signal to standard digital. Telecommunications-reform legislation—now facing an uncertain fate after getting hung up on the issue of network neutrality—included provisions allowing cable to downconvert any must-carry station's HDTV signal to standard DTV.
“If cable is allowed to do that,” Donovan warns, “it undermines the incentives to go out and buy new HD sets.”
NAB President David Rehr cautions that it also may hurt broadcast HD programming.
The cable industry argues that it needs the flexibility of downconversion to reduce the capacity strains of bandwidth-hungry HDTV signals. Broadcasters counter that cable could, instead, favor its own HDTV content by perhaps downconverting network HD while delivering cable shows in that format. “It's a competitive issue,” says Donovan.
Rehr believes that some smaller cable systems without the technology might not be able to pass along the HD signal. “We have a problem with the local cable operator offering Sopranos in HD but telling the broadcaster, hey, you can't do it.”
From an operational perspective, broadcast networks also have a ways to go before their HD conversion is complete. Only Fox has created a single transmission path to support both high-definition and standard-definition feeds today, with the hi-def signal being downconverted at the station level to support analog broadcasts. The other three broadcast networks still rely on completely separate transmission paths for HD and SD, although that may change by 2009.
Most primetime fare and major sports coverage are available in HD; of network news programs, only morning shows Good Morning America on ABC and Today on NBC are. Meanwhile, syndicated HD programming was introduced this fall with Sony Pictures Television's Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, which are distributed by King World.
Both HD commercials and high-definition syndicated content have been held back by limitations in the file-based satellite delivery systems used to send content to stations. But ad-delivery firm DG Systems is rolling out HD-compliant “spot servers” at its client stations and networks, and Pathfire is expected to come up with a similar system for syndicated fare.
Despite the industry's best efforts, a 100% HD world may be unrealistic.
“You are always going to have legacy programming that was shot 4:3 and will be standard-definition,” notes Seidel. “When people say, 'When will everything be converted to HD?' you say, 'Never,' because some things won't. Gunsmoke, in 4:3 black-and-white, is going to stay that way.”
What about We the People?
With varying levels of attention given to legal and logistic issues in this uphill battle, there is a danger in forgetting arguably the most important group needing conversion to HD: the American public.
Consumer education about the DTV transition hardly appears to be a thumbtack on the national map. A lot of Americans still don't realize they're going to need a new TV set or converter come February 2009. Congress has allocated a paltry $5 million to the cause, but HDTV-policy maker Dick Wiley expects the industry to step up. He predicts the NAB will name a VP for digital transition and that Rehr will “run this like a campaign.”
Rehr may need to if he expects to keep the DTV switch from becoming this decade's version of metric conversion.
These are all Herculean tasks, requiring cooperation between the government and the industry. Getting everybody on the same page may be the first best step to making the DTV deadline.
“We're planning on doing everything we can before Feb. 17,” says Doback. “We read the FCC mandate to be that analog will be turned off, digital will be turned on, and out-of-core digital will cease to operate.
“People haven't considered, or maybe even understood, the mammoth scope of what we are undertaking,” he adds. “None of us are trying to drag our feet. It's just that there are some physical realities that we have to live with that are incredibly difficult. In a lot of situations, you are at the mercy of a third party. If they don't have the same sense of urgency that we do, that can be problematic.”