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Digital TV gets specifically directed

Broadcasters will be able to target advertising and programming geographically and demographically, thanks to an amendment to the U.S. digital television standard approved last week by the Advanced Television Systems Committee.

The new functionality, called "directed channel change," was initially developed by Tribune Broadcasting and FOX [B & C, April 19, 1999]. It uses the ATSC standard's Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP) to differentiate among the multiple standard-definition program streams that a station can broadcast within its 19.4-Mb/s digital bandwidth. The PSIP data directs the DTV receiver to programming tailored to a consumer's geographic location or viewing preferences.

A simple example of such functionality is local news. By programming their ZIP codes into DTV receivers, consumers would be able to watch segments or entire newscasts created specifically for their geographic location. Within the New York DMA, for instance, a broadcaster could offer separate newscasts targeted to Manhattan, the New Jersey suburbs, or Westchester County. Using the PSIP data, the DTV receiver would tune to the appropriate SDTV stream automatically.

Directed channel change was conceived two years ago when Tribune was trying to identify ways to add value to DTV's transmission capability and to compete better with cable operators and newspapers for local advertising, says Tribune Vice President of Engineering and Technology Ira Goldstone. "Targeting was a value we could give to advertisers."

PSIP data, which is used to generate the electronic program guide (EPG) on digital TV sets, was a convenient way to enable targeting, he says. "We wanted to create the [means] to insert information about where you were located when you first initialized the set, and that would be all you needed for the set to interpret when the TV station was sending out alternative content."

Andrew G. Setos, executive vice president of News Corp.'s news-technology group, points out that directed channel change could differentiate FOX programming based on demographic preferences as well as ZIP codes. A sports fan, for example, could be directed to a sports-heavy newscast while another viewer watched a more generic newscast.

"This is an important early feature of digital television that provides opportunities for both revenue and programming innovations as well as public service," Setos says, adding that the ZIP code functionality will be extremely useful in providing severe-weather alerts and other emergency information.

How soon broadcasters provide DTV-targeted programming depends on how quickly consumer electronics manufacturers equip DTV sets with the directed-channel-change feature. Philips Consumer Electronics has already expressed an interest in it and demonstrated the system at NAB 2000. Setos expects manufacturers to use it as a differentiating feature in selling DTV sets.

Directed channel change won't require any extra processing power from DTV receivers, says S. Merrill Weiss, a DTV consultant who helped draft the standard. "Any receiver that has an EPG in it should be able to do this."

The extent of demographic information consumers will be able to provide is largely up to receiver manufacturers, Weiss adds. "There are a whole range of possibilities and choices. We tried to make it as flexible as we possibly could."

One open question is whether consumers will be apprised of the other "virtual channels" contained in the DTV spectrum and have the flexibility to watch them.

"There's nothing to stop the TV receiver manufacturers from putting up a list of ZIP codes and saying you can watch any one of these," says Weiss. He adds that directed channel-change functionality is optional and consumers will not be required to input any data.