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Open Mike

Thoughts on the future of broadcast TV

Editor: I found your article ("Sink or Swim," 8/5, page 14) thought-provoking. You hit on the head the issue for local broadcasting's survival—a distribution. Your suggestions revolve around making the local broadcaster a distributor of programming and services—again.

The fundamental change has occurred over the last 20 years. Local broadcasting was the means of distributing programming for the New York mother ships. Now, with 85% of the US subscribing to wired cable or satellite TV, the local broadcaster is only important to the remaining 15% of the US viewers ... and even then, those 15% are probably classified as lower-income or non-technology users. But what you suggest will be difficult to accomplish.

Assuming broadcasters could get a box to the field, can they offer something compelling enough for a generation that is growing up on 300 channels, high-speed Internet, and wireless technology? I don't think they can offer enough to be competitive with cable or satellite. And, more important, can they afford servers for Internet and the $2-per-sub programming fees for ESPN?

It is very interesting indeed. A country based on choice has given us so many choices. Can local broadcast make itself a viable choice to the consumer that demands so much today? Probably not.

Dave Carter, Nashville

Editor: Your warning to the broadcast industry could not have been more on target. Unfortunately, it might be too late.

While broadcasters debate all the issues relating to this new "must-carry" spectrum, others have quietly been working and spending to make Interactive TV a reality. What will this new media landscape look like? How will the traditional networks, studios, MSOs, advertisers and others participate in this new world order? Today, no one has an answer. One thing is for sure, no matter how much we try to ignore it: Interactive TV is coming.

There are some very smart people with deep pockets thinking about how to make Interactive TV a reality in the U.S. They will figure it out; someone always does. Broadcasters must come to terms with this reality. They can't look at it with the same skepticism they showed for new cable networks 20 years ago.

A model solely dependent on advertising revenues and consolidation won't work long term. Interactive TV will deliver new revenue streams, for sure. Subscriptions, PPV, commerce and subscriber fees are all attainable. The question is whether or not the broadcasting business wants to be a part of it. The answer today would appear to be "we're thinking about it."

Adam Ware, Los Angeles (Ware is former chief operating officer of UPN)

Editor: I read with great interest and pleasure your essay on the current DTV morass and what you see as a way out. My colleagues and I at Sinclair have been advocates of many of these ideas for several years. As you well know, Sinclair was publicly lambasted for even suggesting a multichannel application for DTV by none other than Sen. John McCain at one of his DTV hearings several years ago.

Clearly, over-the-air reception using simple antennas is a paramount necessary for the long-term success of DTV as a broadcast business. You clearly made that point. However, I am afraid that you have placed your trust in the wrong place. It is not certain, nor even likely, that the 8-VSB transmission standard will ever be fixed by increasing the complexity and cost of the receiver. Nor is it likely it will ever be able to provide for simple indoor-antenna reception or portable or mobile reception at reasonable data rates. All of these are extremely important applications if broadcasting—that is, free over-the-air broadcasting—is going to survive, let alone prosper in the digital age.

The FCC plan to require 8-VSB chip sets in new TV sets is the equivalent of a death warrant for over-the-air TV because chips that can receive 8-VSB signals via simple antennas do not exist and may never exist. Broadcasters will be doomed to shutting off their stations and submitting to an ever-demanding cable and satellite industry for distribution. Where is our industry leadership? Where is our industry vision and strategic planning? Is it lost in Washington?

Nat Ostroff, vice president, new technology, Sinclair Television Group, Baltimore

Editor: As a broadcaster of 40 years, now running a radio music research service for the adult contemporary format, but with antennas and dishes all over my house, I appreciate the ideas you offer in your commentary.

I have the RCA DTC-100 [set-top digital broadcast receiver], which allows me to see not only standard-definition programming but HDTV programming downconverted to standard definition.

My experience in Portland [Ore.] leads me to believe that most of the complaints about 8-VSB [digital transmission] are based on problems related to low-power signals. The six local digital broadcasters have no interference problems in the metro area that I have ever seen. More impressive, when the antenna is disconnected and the full-power analog signal becomes awful, the digital equivalent remains robust and perfect. The 8-VSB signal is more robust than the NTSC signal for each of these stations.

I agree that all digital stations should build out to full power as soon as possible, particularly if the manufacturers start building digital tuners into their sets as they should be compelled to do if they don't do it voluntarily (it worked for UHF and would work for digital TV).

Eric Norberg, editor and publisher,
The Adult Contemporary Music Research Letter