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R&D to the rescue

Broadcasters efforts to exploit their digital TV channels have been.let's be kind.feeble. Many have built digital stations at great expense but have only the foggiest notion of what to do with them, let alone how to make them into profitable businesses.

There are a lot of reasons for this, which this magazine has tried to document over the past few years. Some are technical, like the faulty 8-VSB transmission system. It just doesn't work well. Somebody needs to come up with a fix that will not only greatly improve reception in fixed sets, but eventually permit reception by portable and mobile sets.

That somebody should actually be a place-a broadcast tech center. As broadcasting's answer to Cable Labs, the tech center would tackle 8-VSB, datacasting and other DTV-related issues. But it could-and should-become a permanent fixture and become the industry's-the entire industry's-R&D operation.

Beyond DTV, there is certainly plenty to do. Take centralcasting. Many of the larger station groups are looking to control multiple stations from a central one, so that many stations can essentially be run from one facility. It promises enormous cost-savings in personnel and technology. But to operate master control in one city from another hundreds of miles away is tough. It requires a complex system of telecommunications and automated broadcast gear. Working with manufacturers and system integrators, the groups are moving ahead with various centralcasting solutions. Each group is inventing its own wheel.

Wouldn't it have made more sense for broadcasters to turn the job of designing centralcasting systems over to a commonly run tech center? My guess is that it would have speeded implementation, lowered the cost and given broadcasters some confidence that it would work.

Cable Labs' Dick Green, who spent most of his career as a broadcast engineer for CBS and others, says the broadcast tech center could help in even more routine ways. It could regularly test TV production and transmission gear and provide the results for all to see. The manufacturers might not appreciate it, but any broadcaster on the verge of spending a few millions dollars certainly would.

So what's the downside? Money, of course. A tech center similar to Cable Labs with a few dozen engineers and the necessary hardware would cost $20 to $30 million a year to operate. That sounds like a lot of money. Well, it is a lot of money. But it's only a pittance compared to the broadcasters' $40 billion in annual revenue. If everybody plays, the annual hit on everybody's bottom line wouldn't be so bad. And before dismissing the idea of a tech center, broadcasters ought to look at how much they have been spending on consultants and systems integrators and how much they wasted on gear that wasn't all the salesperson said it would be.

You can't bank on it, but there is a chance that the tech center could actually generate some revenue-from royalties on any patented inventions the center comes up with. Let's say the center dreams up a circuit that fixes the 8-VSB-reception problem. There's nothing that says it has to give it away to set manufacturers. How about a $1 per set?

I'm still waiting for a low-cost broadcast antenna that will pull in distant signals and give me a good ghost-free picture or static-free audio. That would be worth putting a team of engineers on. And the pay off could be enormous-for the tech center and for every TV and radio broadcaster in the land.

Having "intellectual property" would also give the tech center a stronger hand in dealing with manufacturers, Green says. It doesn't always have to be their way, he says, if you have an alternate one.

Green also has a selfish reason for advocating a broadcast tech center. Among the issues Cable Labs is dealing with is cable-broadcast compatibility-how cable systems handle broadcast signals the law says they must retransmit. He says, "As a technologist, it would be very useful to have another technologist to coordinate with."

The idea of a broadcast tech center has been kicked around for many years and, usually because of the expense, doesn't get far. But DTV could be the catalyst that finally makes it reality.

The National Association of Broadcasters has broached the idea several times over the past 10 years with no luck. The NAB's Chuck Sherman, who has been part of the pitch in the past, sees the merits. "We could get into such issues as interactivity and copy protection," he says. "It would give us the ability to control our destiny in the digital world."