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National Zoo photo by Ann Batdorf

Broadcaster Sniping and Glass Houses

March 16, 2008

My converter box is still alive and well. The only time I get dropouts is when there is a lot of gusty wind (March comes in like a lion, remember), but fortunately the wind tends to die out in the evening.

I tried out the digital closed captioning feature (for the hearing impaired). Implementation of that particular standard by broadcasters had been reported to be spotty, and that's what I found. I was able to bring up the closed captions for at least half the stations, but it wasn't real easy.

Go into the menu and set up the closed caption options, and then there is a CCD button on the remote.

You start by pushing the button to cycle through about fourteen options to get back to OFF, then push the button again to "Service 1," and after about five seconds the closed captions start. Change the channel and you have to go through the whole process all over.

The new digital closed caption standard does a lot more than the analog version (except work well). You get your choice of text color and size, background color, type of border, etc. Very cool, unless you have to use it.

Fortunately, my hearing is excellent.

The closed caption standard is another one of those "voluntary" parts of the ATSC digital TV standards. It's like the Active Format Description (AFD) standard I talked about last week that broadcasters have been slow to pick up.

Another one of those standards is the all-important PSIP (Program and System Information Protocol). As the ATSC people say, "PSIP is the glue that holds the digital television signal together. . . . Although proper implementation of PSIP at the television station level is not particularly complex, neither is it always straightforward."

If they screw it up, or take short-cuts, something is not going to work correctly.

PSIP carries the metadata for each broadcast channel that tells your TV which actual channel to tune (TV stations digital channels are mostly virtual to preserve their traditional analog station number branding), provides information about the program being watched that can be displayed on the screen, supports electronic program guides and content rating systems (e.g. V-chip), tells the TV what time it is, and supports caption services.

So, anyway, the FCC has mandated that PSIP be fully implemented by broadcasters by May 30. Will it happen?

The NAB says no way. They're asking that the FCC postpone that deadline a year, oh, as in, 2009. Even then, broadcasters expect that all the ducks are not going to be lined up.

The NAB also wants the FCC not to require them to send to consumers' TVs information on whether the program they're watching is standard or high definition. As in, perhaps a network high definition program that is being broadcast locally in standard definition. What viewers don't know won't hurt them. Right?


Broadcasters are nevertheless pummeling the FCC to get the DBS players (DirecTV and Dish) to send out broadcasters' local digital signals to everyone in all 210 designated market areas (local-into-local). And to deliver high definition signals at that!

The satellite companies responded by suggesting that the broadcasters might do well to spend the bucks to expand their own broadcast coverage instead of asking satellite providers to do it for them.

There has been intense lobbying going on in the FCC Commissioners offices during the last couple of weeks. The Commission is expected to announce their new rules for satellite carriage of broadcasters' local signals at its March meeting next Wednesday (it's on the agenda, at least).

The National Association of Broadcasters is also arguing that the FCC require satellite carriers to retransmit the signals of local television stations in high definition, rather than "allow them to degrade and down-convert HD signals to standard definition."

The satellite folks counter-argument: "in order to justify [satellite] carriage of [local] HD programming, the Commission should demand that broadcasters actually produce local HD content rather than simply retransmitting network HD programming -- and demand that NAB explain why they have not yet done so."

Many broadcasters do not even retransmit network HD programming in high-definition, much less produce their own local HD news shows, for example.

It's becoming wearisome.

But there's more.

The NAB is in a nasty feud with the low-power TV station lobby (Community Broadcasters Association) about NAB transition education messages that say all analog broadcasts will be shut-off after February 17, 2009, when in fact most low-power stations will soldier on with analog.

The low-power guys are also mad about most converter boxes not having an analog bypass feature. (There are six out of 51 certified boxes that have that feature; there are also easy, but inconvenient ways to bypass the box with a splitter and a short antenna cable.)

On another front, the Consumer Electronics Association is still duking it out with the cable industry on the two-way "navigation device" standard the FCC still can't seem to resolve. (That's like a cable set-top-box, except built into the TV, and that would work with any cable system in the country.)

The cable industry continues to block any consumer-friendly reforms that might threaten its lucrative set-top-box revenues.

So, what else? Oh, there's the bit about one of Dick Cheney's aides taking over the NTIA. Why slant the truth when it justs gets you in trouble? Keep everything secret; nobody will know when you've screwed the American public.

Until next week . . . FCC March meeting on Wednesday

FCC consumer advisory committee meeting on April 4, about the DTV transition. Senate DTV hearing on April 8.

Hopefully not as grumpy next time. me, that is.