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Broadcaster Transition Status - Hmmm . . .

April 18, 2007

With the National Association of Broadcasters convention winding down, one wonders: what have those guys been up to? Are they on schedule to switch over to digital at the end of the transition, now about 22 months away? Eager beavers or foot-draggers, or just business as usual (we'll worry about it next year)?

Methinks some of each.

The good news is that there is a broad range of new products on the market that make it easier and cheaper for TV stations and producers to make the jump to digital and high-definition. These products range from cameras to editing suites to transmitters.

Apple just debuted (at NAB's convention) a new version of their ubiquitous Final Cut Studio production software package. This now lets editors combine different source material (varying resolutions, compression protocols, and even frame rates) in a single timeline (drag and drop), and then output in whatever format they choose. The package includes a new high-end color grading application, same price.

Not only does it do HD, it does 4K (4000 lines of resolution video), 3-D, and integrated 5.1 channel sound editing.

Also new is Apple's ProRes 422 compression format that can compress full raster HD quality video from 1TB to 170GB. People at the presentation could not tell the difference (before and after). Add AJA's new hardware interface, the IO-HD, that Apple demoed as part of the system, and you can edit anywhere for a fraction of what the cost would have been a year ago.

Very cool stuff!

Will the broadcasters and the programming people buy into all this new technology? Or rather do it soon?

There were a couple of recent articles in the broadcast TV trade press that cast some doubt on the industry's preparations for February 17, 2009.

They looked at the long-lead equipment that broadcasters will need to go to full digital power at the end of the transition, to wit: towers, antennas, and transmitters, etc. They found that perhaps 500 stations, give or take a hundred (depending on what items are lacking) are not ready and are not in the process of getting ready.

A lot depends on whether a station's interim digital channel is the same as its final (post-transition) channel, or whether it's current final digital channel is going to be the same as its current analog channel, or something completely new.

Switching over is not going to be as simple as throwing a switch on midnight the last day. For some stations it might be, but not most.

Something typical might be that a station has an omni-directional antenna for its analog channel at the top of its tower, and a split antenna lower down for its digital channel. So to reach full digital power after the transition, they might have to have the digital antenna at the top. If the channel will be the same as the analog channel, fine (they can use the old omnidirectional analog antenna for their digital signal), but if the channel is different, they would need a new antenna. (antennas are custom, designed for specific frequencies--oops)

That's just one example.

The point is you can't just go into Radio Shack and buy this sort of equipment, and there aren't that many suppliers that manufacture this stuff, so if 200 or 500 stations wait until mid-2008 to order what they need, someone is going to be late to the party.

If the planning starts soon, everyone should be good to go.

On the other hand, if you normally watch late-night TV, you might just want to have a movie handy for the evening of February 17, 2009, or find some other suitably entertaining activity.

UPDATE:

While looking through the FCC's dockets to find more information on DTV transition issues to be considered at the FCC's April 25 open meeting, I stumbled across a Harris Corporation (they make TV transmitters etc.) presentation to the FCC on the readiness of broadcasters for the end of the transition. Very dire. Very little time.

Even more disturbing was the feedback they were getting from TV stations. To wit (taken from the presentation):

Many do not believe that Feb.17, 2009 will remain as a fixed date for analog sunset

Some believe that the transition date could slip out as far as 2015

Most believe that there will be a transition period after analog sunset during which they will have time to build out their RF system for the final DTV channel assignment

They assume that they will continue to operate on their temporary DTV assignment until they are ready to move to the permanent assignment

Some believe that they will be able to apply for extensions on moving to their permanent DTV channel assignment based on the inability of suppliers to deliver transmitters, filters, other critical components or the lack of installation teams to install the RF systems

What are the open issues?

Final DTV table of channel allotments not yet issued

Firm statement on analog sunset date with policy towards extensions

What is the latest date for stations to commence operation on final DTV channel assignment?

Is the Commission expecting a flash cut ?

Will there be a transition period?

Are extensions likely to happen if stations are not ready due to supplier delivery?

If there is a transition period, is it pre or post analog sunset?

Good questions. Hopefully the FCC will have answers.