A Tale of
on digital TV differ between broadcasters and
cablecasters at 1998 meetings. Here's why.
It was the best of times
and the worst of times for the many broadcasters and
cablecasters attending their separate 1998 conventions. A
time of hope for some was a time of despair for others.
And on every tongue in almost every conference at both
trade shows was a phrase with different meanings for each
event -- digital television.
At NAB98, the sprawling annual convention and trade
show in Las Vegas, April 5-10, hosted by the National
Association of Broadcasters, the launch of HDTV
broadcasting this year stood out as the top technology
story. Next in the news were the starts this year of
digital multicasting and datacasting services.
Attention focused on the TV stations going digital in
late 1998 and early 1999, the pioneers to be named in the
annals of the broadcast industry. Engineers and directors
at these and other local stations visited the equipment
vendors among the 1200 exhibitors at the show, vendors
enthusiastically showing end-to-end digital systems or
system components. Products demonstrated included
switchable cameras (from wide-screen to standard-screen
picture formats), digital servers, MPEG-2 encoders, HDTV
broadcast transmitters, and wide-screen plasma TV
To help local station operators and the public feel
more comfortable with digital television, the "DTV
Express" was debuted. Sponsored by Harris and PBS, with
support from Philips and 40 other vendors, the 66-foot
truck (split inside between HDTV production and display)
in 1998 began a national tour of U.S. cities. The message
is not that digital TV is coming. The message is that
digital TV is here.
Yet only a few sessions among the hundreds at NAB98
dealt with interactive television, and these emphasized
one-way "push" broadcast systems for Internet-on-TV. The
panel on interactive data broadcasting voiced the
financial opportunities for broadcasters, but first there
must be worldwide agreement on multimedia transmission
standards. Such agreements are unlikely without a shift
within the broadcast community on what are "acceptable
technologies." Will broadcasters ever say the term
"set-top box" without choking on each syllable?
A month later and across the continent, the National
Cable Television Association convened in Atlanta, May
3-6, for their 47th annual meeting, Cable'98, celebrating
50 years since the cable industry first began as
"community antenna television" (CATV), a way for
broadcasters to reach homes outside the range of their
Once natural allies, broadcasters and cablecasters
today are rivals if not outright enemies. Cable fiercely
resents the FCC "must-carry" rule that requires local
cable systems to carry without charge the local VHF and
UHF and now HDTV broadcast channels. Not only do cable
operators want those channels for their own revenue
generation, but cable operators resist the implicit
requirement to install HDTV systems to comply with
must-carry when local broadcasters go digital.
The nub of the dispute is that cable's vision of
digital TV differs significantly from broadcast's vision
of digital TV. Where the broadcasters equate digital TV
with the HDTV format promulgated by the motion picture
industry, cable sees wide-screen movies as only one small
part of a total package of digital services called
According to the speakers at Cable'98, with channel
capacity exploding as MPEG-2 compression begins, any
50-channel system compressing at 10:1 actually can offer
500 channels, but 200 to 250 channels is more manageable.
After a few premium HDTV channels for affluent
subscribers, cable execs figure about a hundred SDTV
channels with digital sound will amply satisfy the vast
majority of people who can't afford HDTV sets until
prices drop drastically.
Even with a dozen HDTV movie channels and a hundred
SDTV video channels, operators of upgraded digital cable
systems can still have plenty of channels left over for
digital niche services and diverse interactive
programming, all made possible by the next generation of
digital set-top boxes and cable modems. With leadership
by CableLabs, the industry has agreed on open
"interoperability" standards. The set-top and cable modem
from one cable system will work on any other cable
The interactive TV options demonstrated by more than
450 exhibitors at the NCTA show ranged from
Internet-on-TV applications like WorldGate to "enhanced"
programming from Wink to "personalized" TV viewing from
ACTV to turnkey video-on-demand systems from DIVA. To
help cable subscribers cope with the proliferation of
channels, new electronic program guides from vendors like
TV Guide made all the new interactive services seem as
easy as "old-fashioned" channel surfing.
At Cable'98, the big news was not that interactive TV
is coming one fine day, but that interactive TV is here
now. Cautious after the premature promises of five years
ago, multiple vendors announced field deployments of
commercial interactive TV. Real money is being earned
today from real services.
And if interactive video and high-speed data services
are not enough to give the cable industry confidence,
cable telephony services also have begun. Using HFC
(hybrid fiber-coax) lines connecting condos, apartment or
office buildings in several metro markets, the advent of
cable-operated local phone exchanges means that open
competition with the telcos has started at last.
Despite so many advances, the cable industry as a
whole still appears timid about plunging headlong into
wide-screen digital television. cable's reluctance is
mirrored in the broadcast industry.
The big cable system operators, like the broadcast
networks, have pledged to upgrade their plants to digital
with multi-million dollar rebuilds. But the medium to
smaller system operators, like many local broadcast
stations, lack the cashflow for rapid upgrades. Instead,
digital components will have to be installed gradually.
The necessity for a slower pace tends to sober the
thinking of even the most enthusiastic true believers in
So, for broadcasters and cablecasters alike, 1998
represents both the best of times and the worst of times,
the arrival of long-promised digital services accompanied
by unenviable frustrations from the inevitable deployment
At a deeper level, both industries face the same
fundamental fears. Will the public accept their new
digital services? Hot marketing campaigns may well help,
but the final decision-making power rests with consumers,
who always vote with their dollars, by design or
Much remains unsettled. Will HDTV win viewers? Will
interactive television win users? Will digital must-carry
hold? Will broadcast or cable lose out? Will both win?
Time alone will tell the tale of these two TV