HDTV and Me (and my soapbox)…

I am a fond proponent and avid ‘flag waver’ of local broadcasting and free HDTV and I would be happy to answer questions on the subject for anyone to the best of my ability. It is fun to show friends and neighbors what HDTV looks and sounds like when I invite them into my home theater to watch a live broadcast like Monday night football, prime-time programming or when I play back some of my HD recordings (yes, you can record HD broadcasts at home!) from my PC onto my 65” Widescreen HDTV set. For more technical information on HDTV please follow this link.

Free over-the-air HDTV is available to everyone in almost all markets through their local broadcast station. Since this is a service mandated by the FCC upon broadcast stations, I and others in the broadcast industry are puzzled why most broadcast station owners do not promote this service. Since I have talked with Nielsen Media engineers and they have told me that they know which of their metered homes have HDTV sets and that they are able to track their viewing habits, there doesn’t seem to be any real reason not to promote the service, especially as more and more people stop watching local programming and tune into other channels on cable, satellite or the Internet. Local HDTV, even just promoting the fact that they pass through the HD signal from their parent Network, could help staunch the bloodletting of lost viewers. It certainly couldn’t hurt to try, unfortunately many local broadcasters are simply afraid to do so. Free HDTV is what I consider the “killer app” (ultimate service) for the broadcast community. In it’s simplest form it provides something for free that no other service provider can deliver at the same price, yet is largely ignored by station owners and managers across the country and therefore the viewing public remains blissfully ignorant of the service flying around their heads every day and night.

In addition, many stations that still have yet to seriously promote their HD offerings are moving into multiple streams of program offerings (which are also not promoted). This is a bit puzzling to a simple engineer like myself, especially since worthwhile content is what will attract viewers and the additional supplemental channels (bitstreams) has a detrimental effect on the quality of the primary HD stream!

There was a time not too long ago when the term “broadcast quality” was used to describe the standard that other services struggled to meet. Now, the analog over-the-air signal (which most cable systems still use to feed their head-ends) usually looks awful or at least considerably poorer when compared to the other channels on a cable or satellite subscriber’s set-top box.

It seems clear that unless local broadcasters are able to look farther down the road than the next ratings period and provide more than just local news programming, which looks a lot like the other three, four or five local broadcasters in the same market, that the trend of declining local viewership (Story 1, 2, 3 ) will continue. And this phenomena is not restricted to American borders.(Story 1, 2, 3 ).

While it hasn’t been difficult to find TV programming on the Internet for download, it usually is done via a Google search and a Bittorent download. Recently, a new free program and service called Democracy Player which has now become ‘Miro’ has been developed to anyone with a high-speed Internet connection and the desire to view content on their terms. Simply put, this media player aggregates video content from any RSS feed very much like a standard RSS news reader from “channel” sites you can browse or specific sites you designate. While many of the “video podcasts” are extremely amateur, others are very well done and only serve to signal the blossoming evolution away from traditional broadcasting and the narrowcasting future we are heading toward at a rapid clip.

I found the quote below from this story amusingly accurate:

“You know the old saw about TV being measured in dog years? Ten years ago we were the adorable new puppy. Now we’re the old dog that sleeps a lot and you have to watch the carpets,”

This is unfortunate, because I really enjoy the dynamic nature of working on projects in broadcast television and any local broadcaster that creates their own newscast has the unique ability to create programming at will. In addition to a newscast that looks very much like the 5 or 6 or 7 other newscasts available to the viewer with slightly different graphics, why not create something original and “hyper-local’ that the national networks or the superstations on cable and satellite could not possibly create?

A number of stations across the country such as KRON, with their “Bay Area Backroads”, “Bay Area Bargains” and other local programs, WCVB’s Chronicle magazine and other’s have already figured this out. There is very little keeping other stations from doing the same – mostly the petty argument that such programming will never rate as high as the local news. While huge ratings would be great, the idea is to create content that has some value, to local viewers, and to do what investment counselors repeatedly advise, “diversify”. And why not do it in HD? With the plummeting prices of HD and HDV gear for the broadcaster and consumer year after year, broadcasters are losing the viewers they could likely keep if they had something else of value to offer, such as their own programming in HDTV, to cable and satellite providers that not only provide it, but promote it as well.

Since local broadcasting is still a very viable business it will likely take a few more years before cable, the Internet, Video-On-Demand (via cable or a broadband connection to the Internet), satellite and time-shifting devices such as Tivo, MythTV, ReplayTV and Media PCs take enough of the profit pie to seriously cripple the broadcasting business. But it is happening now and it is hurting the traditional broadcast business model.

Television has changed dramatically in the past decade from the time I cut my baby broadcast teeth servicing a 3/4” U-Matic VTR with the advent of HDTV, digital videotape formats, video servers, automation, ownership consolidation and the unrivaled explosion of competition from other venues. It will be interesting to see what evolves over the next few years. In the mean time, at least PBS has made a serious effort in HDTV education and promotion…