Last January, when I wrote a column for TWICE, the Digital Television (DTV) transition was buzzing along at an encouraging pace. Survey data found that over 40 percent of consumers were looking to buy a Digital TV set in the next few years.
High-definition digital programming had expanded and more than 200 television stations had gone on the air in digital.
Around that same time, the National Association of Broadcasters kicked off a multifront marketing campaign aimed at spreading this “buzz” among consumers.
A year later, I am delighted to report progress on many fronts. Interest in Digital Television has continued to accelerate, with the latest figures from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) showing that consumer purchases of Digital TV sets, digital displays and digital reception equipment are growing exponentially.
The amount of high-definition programming has doubled, with networks airing more than 2,000 hours of high-definition programming this season. The HDTV lineup includes all primetime shows on CBS and ABC, many primetime shows on NBC, plus programming on the WB and PBS.
It also features major sporting events, such as the U.S. Open, The Masters, NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament games and — this year — the Super Bowl.
The number of stations that have flipped the digital switch has tripled. A year ago, there were 215 on-the-air in DTV. As of late November, there were 621 stations transmitting digital signals in 165 of the country’s 210 television markets.
This expansion in digital broadcast coverage means that over 94 percent of U.S. television households are in a television market now served by a Digital TV signal.
Moreover, 62 percent of households are in a market served by five or more digital signals.
American television stations have spent billions of dollars on the process of conversion, investing in new transmitters and digital editing and processing equipment, and, in many cases, erecting new broadcast towers. In fact, the costs for smaller stations are often more than the value of the stations themselves.
In addition, public interest in information regarding Digital TV is at an all time high with thousands of information hits each week on the Digital TV Web site, NAB continues to build understanding and excitement for Digital TV with its national consumer awareness campaign.
As with any transition, there are challenges to confront along the way. Since last year, we have dispensed with one obstacle and are making steady progress in overcoming a second.
The Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) August decision to mandate integration of Digital Television tuners into new TV sets will fuel the transition by more rapidly making available television sets that are both digital and analog capable.
While there has been some controversy among the industries about the Commission’s decision, NAB believes that the ruling was necessary to spur the adoption of DTV along.
The FCC wisely implemented a staggered schedule, starting with the biggest sets. This will shield consumers from any price increase a tuner mandate might otherwise cause.
In fact, given the steady drop in DTV set prices, we don’t believe consumers will see any price increase as a result of the tuner mandate.
More importantly, the emphasis on tuners makes it easier for viewers to enjoy free, over-the-air Digital TV through a broadcasting system that broadcasters and consumer electronics manufacturers have jointly developed over the past 60 years.
We are also seeing progress on a second issue, so called “plug-and-play” interoperability, enabling Digital Television sets, digital VCRs, DVD systems and other devices to work together.
In the analog world, a consumer buys a TV set, takes it home, plugs it in and starts watching TV.
Only when consumers experience this same ease of use with digital devices will the transition be fully realized. Broadcasters applaud the recent negotiations between the cable and consumer electronics industries on this matter, as inter-industry compromise can be difficult.
Their cooperation is an important step in making it possible for cable subscribers to watch free, over-the-air digital programming provided by broadcasters. We hope this same spirit of cooperation can also resolve copy protection issues that will otherwise slow the introduction of compelling digital content.
One large piece of the puzzle remains. Since almost 70 percent of modern American households get their primary television signal through cable, cable companies must support the DTV revolution in two ways.
First, during the transition, cable should carry both broadcasters’ analog and digital signals. This will give viewers access to digital programming early on, enticing them to purchase DTV sets, while simultaneously protecting those consumers who are slower to adopt.
Second, once the transition is complete, cable should carry all of the digital offerings that broadcasters transmit free and over-the-air. DTV offers a host of new opportunities and options for viewers, from the unparalleled visual and audio experience of high-definition television to the enhanced programming choices of multiple standard definition programs.
As the gatekeeper to millions of American homes, cable has a responsibility to recognize the value of these offerings and make them available to subscribers.
The transition from analog to digital represents the biggest change in television since the transition from black and white to color.
With the cooperation of our industry partners, we continue making great strides. Today, high-definition Digital TV is no longer just a buzz; the demand for it is a Dolby Digital, CD-quality, Surround Sound roar.
Broadcasters will continue to lead the DTV transition and we look forward to bringing the next generation of television to the American public.
Eddie Fritts is president of the National Association of Broadcasters.