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DTV panel: forget tech, create content

Broadcasters spent too much time fighting over cable carriage and transmission problems and too little time developing DTV content, technology executives said Wednesday at the NATPE convention in Las Vegas.

DTV offers stations a wonderful chance to build local viewership, regardless of how the fight over cable carriage ends up, said John Abel of Geocast, a DTV data servicer.
"The broadcast spectrum is underutilized because of the crutch of cable," he said. By adding compelling digital services in the bandwidth once used for one analog signal, stations can again convince viewers to install the outdoor antennas that may be necessary to receive over-the-air DTV signals reliably. If TV had not relied on cable to gain access to 60% of American homes, the industry might face less of a hurdle in building DTV audiences.

"Consumers have to see a service that is desirable on that antenna," he said.

Of course, Abel and everyone else on a NATPE panel discussing DTV progress said they had no clue what services would actually win viewers.

"It's important to stay dynamic; that's going to change," said Ken Solomon, president of iBlast Networks, a TV station consortium that also provides ancillary digital services.

Some of ideas he thinks worth trying: downloaded music, games and motion pictures, "a local C-Span," multiple video channels and high-definition TV.

"The amount of creativity is going to be unlimited in terms of what programming will be like," said Cliff Jenks, chief executive of WaveXpress, a datacasting technology developer.
Broadcasters on the panel, apparently recovering from the shock of an FCC decision Monday damaging their chances to demand cable carriage of multiple signals in the digital era, appeared much more sanguine about the chances for DTV success.

"We're going to have an evolution; it's not going to be a revolution," said Lowell "Bud" Paxson, owner of Paxson Communications. He insisted he's not intimidated by the absence of products that viewers demonstrably want. His PaxNet network "knows how to do new paradigms," he said noting that his web is the first outside the Big Four to make a profit. He also claimed title as the first broadcaster to find a second revenue stream by launching the Home Shopping Network.

"We're going to make a lot of money on this beach-front property," he said.

Tony Vincequerra, EVP of Hearst-Argyle Television, said his company is committed to rolling out HDTV as quickly as possible to build viewer demand, and plans to be first in its markets to roll out ancillary services when they are ready.

DTV will allow Hearst-Argyle stations to "increase share of audience in our marketplace," he said.

As for the fight over DTV transmission, quelled by industry trade groups' decision last week to keep the current 8-VSB DTV modulation technology, all voiced relief that the dispute is behind them.

"I'm an 8-VSB guy," Paxson said, despite losing a National Association of Broadcasters vote two weeks ago to change the modulation method to one similar to Europe and Japan.
With enhancements, "you can work with either one," Jenks said.

Paxson lamented that technology uncertainty dampened consumer marketers' enthusiasm for selling DTV receivers. To illuminate the impact of the DTV's audience dearth, he said no one has phoned his Chicago digital station to take up a regularly aired offer to give the first caller $500. "Not even a clerk in a television retail store has called." - Bill McConnell