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Bucks for TV brains

Broadcasters want to create a broadcast-technology lab, along the lines of CableLabs, to help the industry develop compelling digital products and services. They just aren't sure how to pay for it.

For the past year and a half, the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) has been—off and on—pushing the idea of a high-tech lab where new ideas could be incubated and tested before rollout to the public.

At the National Association of Broadcasters' winter board meeting in January 2001, MSTV strongly pitched the idea. The industry was just finishing up months of fighting over which broadcast-transmission standard would be better—8-VSB or COFDM—and the engineering types thought it would be good if broadcasters had a place of their own to find out, instead of hiring out the work or leaving it to companies with their own agendas.

But the industry settled on 8-VSB, MSTV changed leadership, and the economy soured. By the time the annual NAB convention rolled around that April, the idea had faded. But two weeks ago, MSTV board members began talking about it again, and MSTV President David Donovan made a public pitch for it at the annual meeting of the Advanced Television Systems Committee in mid May.

Now Donovan and MSTV are developing a long-promised proposal that they plan to present to the NAB at some point, although it probably won't be ready for NAB's annual board meeting in Washington June 10-12.

NAB board members say they're interested in such a plan but so far have seen no proposal. All of them agree the main issue is funding.

Donovan likely will ask NAB, MSTV and the Consumer Electronics Association to chip in, along with the companies that make up the TV industry, including manufacturers.

"Broadcasters are not going to sit for a special assessment or allow part of their dues to be taken for a lab; plus not all broadcasters are part of NAB," says a broadcast executive. "It could only be done with voluntary contributions. There's no way you could mandate any group to pay."

Broadcasters are struggling with the down economy, the tough transition to digital television, and the lack of a digital business plan other than how to stay in business. That's exactly why a tech center built to bring broadcasting into the future might just save the industry. "It's a tough decision on both ends," says the executive, "but that's the reason we need a broadcast lab more than ever before to enhance the broadcast business."

What about the Alexandria, Va.-based Advanced Television Test Center, which still exists and is a co-venture of the major broadcast networks and the broadcast-related trade associations? ATTC was intended mainly to test digital-TV transmission standards. The new lab would be a kind of inventor's playground, with the serious goal of developing killer TV applications no home could be without.