Skip to main content

Building a digital bridge

David Donovan, the Association for Maximum Service Television's new president, may be the most focused lobbyist in Washington. When asked what challenges he will face in his new job, he says it's summed up in three words: "digital, digital, digital." He could probably have added a fourth "digital" without overestimating the challenge.

The transition to digital television has turned out to be a slow, complicated process.

It seems no two groups—from broadcasters, large and small, to cable operators to TV set manufacturers to program producers to the government—have the same end goal, although Donovan says the broadcast industry is united by a desire to get the rollout done.

Donovan's challenge is to find common ground among these disparate groups, help solve the technical problems digital TV faces, woo lawmakers and bureaucrats and do it all sooner rather than later. It's a tall order, but the TV station groups that run MSTV think Donovan's up to it, having hired him away from the Association of Local Television Stations.

MSTV is a small Washington lobby that focuses on technical issues and runs on an annual budget of about $2 million. It often taps members and other broadcast associations to help fund specific projects, such as last year's tests on competing digital TV transmission standards 8-VSB and COFDM. Donovan's salary hasn't yet been made public, but his predecessor, Margita White, was paid $236,700 in 1999, according to public tax forms.

Donovan's first task will be convincing the broadcast industry to build a digital TV technology center. The National Association of Broadcasters and MSTV are working on a joint proposal to create such a center.

"I think the technical debate over VSB/COFDM taught us that new, technical issues will arise. So far, we have dealt with these issues on a case-by-case basis. This can be inefficient because, for each issue, you have to get a group together, get some funding to conduct the tests and then move forward with development," Donovan explains.

"A broadcast technical laboratory would give the industry a permanent venue to address technical issues. In the end, it will save time and money."

Donovan estimates the center will cost the broadcast industry $5 million to start but acknowledges that the comparative model, the cable industry's Cable Labs, costs some $30 million a year to operate. "You have to step before you can run," Donovan notes.

Broadcasters have different short-term goals when it comes to digital TV, such as how soon to convert and how to use their spectrum.

But MSTV is the one association where networks and affiliates can come together to work on the transition without worrying about other issues dividing the industry, such as ownership caps and network-affiliate squabbles.

"Almost every single free, over-the-air television station in the U.S. today wants this rollout to occur in a timely and economic fashion," Donovan says. "That is what binds us on this issue. We have no choice."

From Donovan's standpoint, the government is unlikely to cut broadcasters any slack on the rollout deadlines. Only about half the 1,200 commercial TV stations are expected to have their DTV stations on the air by the FCC's May 2002 deadline.

"The real crux of the issue is that the government has not stepped up to the plate on elements that are critical to the rollout, specifically digital-cable carriage, cable interoperability and DTV tuners. We also have to resolve digital copyright issues to ensure that top-quality programs remain on free, over-the-air television.

"What's getting lost is that broadcasters were required to operate both an analog and digital station during the transition to protect consumers," Donovan says. "We did not want to make analog sets obsolete without having a digital alternative already in place."