What's Wrong With NAB's Digital Picture?


The National Association of Broadcasters, representing itself as speaking for all broadcasters, has given up the good fight and agreed to drop the 85%-penetration rule and turn off analog TV in 2009.

The Senate Commerce Committee has decided that 2009 is a good date but that somehow viewers should not lose their over-the-air receiving capability. The solution is to supply a “magic” set-top converter box to all that need and deserve it. Such a box does not yet exist.

In the meantime, the cable forces are refusing to agree to even carry the complete digital bit stream transmitted by TV stations. They claim no power should be able to tell them what they will carry on their systems.

Finally, Congress wants to make sure that the public can be reached in times of emergency and expects over-the-air TV to play a major role in that effort.

What is wrong with this picture?

The ATSC 8-VSB transmission system simply is not capable of meeting the needs of the average non–cable-connected viewer.

That transmission system, by the very admission of the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology, is only a rooftop receiving-antenna system and always will be. All efforts to date to make the digital system work as well as the analog system of today in terms of simple antenna reception have failed.

The NAB is between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Years ago, it strongly supported the 8-VSB transmission standard and promised it would be made to work as well as analog TV did as far as ease of reception was concerned. This, of course, was when the NAB and the CEA (Consumer Electronics Association) were on friendly terms.

Here we are in 2005, and there is still no demonstration of reception of the ATSC 8-VSB transmitted signal that shows that it has the same ability to be received with simple antennas as today's analog system. CEA member companies, except for one or two, seem to have written off the over-the-air customer altogether, relying instead on cable and satellite penetration to provide the transmission of digital broadcast signals.

Unfortunately, the NAB can't reverse course now and say that the 8-VSB system is a failure. That would be admitting its earlier errors. That never happens in Washington circles.

We as broadcasters face an uncertain future, and the public faces an ever more powerful cable industry that seems to be above any reasonable regulation. The cable industry will be further boosted by the prospect that, in 2009, the ability to receive a TV picture by using an antenna will, for all practical purposes, disappear.

But will Congress be satisfied when it learns that, when the cable is down in an emergency, there will be no way to reach a very large segment of the population? I wonder if a congressional mandate can overcome the current laws of physics.