Target marketing with DTV

Viewers will be able to "opt out" of a new DTV feature that allows stations to automatically switch them to specially targeted programming and advertisements, industry executives said last week.

The channel-changing component, added to the DTV specifications in May, has raised eyebrows, because it would give stations power to carry viewers to programming against their will or target-market them without their knowledge.

But giving individuals the power to turn off the feature, known as "directed channel change," will prevent stations from abusing the technology, News Corp. Vice President for Software Engineering Scott Hamilton told a seminar sponsored by the Advanced Television Systems Committee in Washington last week. "If people don't want to participate in direct channel change, they won't. It's optional."

It is unclear whether DTV receivers will be designed to automatically accept directed channel changes or prompt viewers to activate the service.

"There are lots of implementation issues for this technology," Hamilton said. News Corp., parent of FOX Television, and Tribune Broadcasting developed the channel-switching technology.

Because directed channel changing requires stations to offer several parallel program streams, the service could take away the bandwidth needed for high-definition television, suggested Intel Corp. Manager of DTV Standards Regis Crinon.

But Hamilton said that HDTV would still be an option if broadcasts are "handled correctly" with such techniques as frame doubling and transmitting in the 720p format, which keeps high-definition programming from eating up all of a station's 19.4-Mb/s digital transmission rate.

Another big question for directed channel changing is whether consumer-equipment manufacturers will include the technology in DTV receivers. So far, the Consumer Electronics Association has balked at making the feature a required element.

Broadcasters are pushing the FCC to require all DTV equipment to provide for the technology and other specific portions of the ATSC's Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP). The agency declined to tackle PSIP-related issues when it settled other DTV/ cable compatibility issues in September. The cable industry and equipment makers are required to report to the FCC on their progress on PSIP and other DTV issues on Nov. 30. The FCC has said it will decide whether to mandate the PSIP elements, also known as A/65, if it becomes clear the various industries cannot work out a satisfactory deal.

"I can't tell you how un-optional I would like to make A/65 in FCC regulation," Hamilton said, adding jokingly, "We'd like to see it in all sets 4 inches and above."

The channel-changing feature would benefit broadcasters, because it will help them retain overall viewers with narrowly targeted programming and allow networks to sell local advertisements during prime time programming. For example, ads could be targeted according to codes during national broadcasts. "We can sell snow tires in Montana and not San Diego," he said.

Viewers could also tailor their newscasts so that people who don't like business news could get an alternative.

The ATSC is also trying to get all broadcasters to support a PSIP feature that ensures that electronic-program guides list all of a station's digital services under the same channel as its analog programming.