[Originally published in 2003]
Anyone who is or will be watching HDTV is watching a bona fide miracle.
HDTV exists in spite of, not the result of, a cacophony of constantly conflicting constituencies. Every national legislative body in the U.S., Europe and Asia, U.S. government rule-making and oversight agencies, Congressional committees, TV and computer equipment manufacturing and broadcasting trade association, corporate partnerships and alliances, and individual companies that now actively support HDTV were, at one time or another in the last 20 years, working actively not only against some aspect of HDTV, but against each other.
Burning bushes? Walking on water? God was just warming up.
PART I: SAVE OUR SPECTRUM
What got the HDTV snowball rolling was the potent combination of greed and jingoism.
According to Joel Brinkley, author of the excellent 1997 HDTV history, “Defining Vision: The Battle for the Future of Television,” the whole HDTV race started as an attempt by TV broadcasters to hold on to spectrum — portions of the public radio frequencies assigned to particular broadcasting uses.
Analog television requires 6 MHz of spectrum per channel. HDTV entailed doubling the number of lines in an analog NTSC picture, requiring an additional 6 MHz of spectrum. The broadcasters already used this spectrum to avoid interference between channels.
In the early 1970s, the broadcasting industry lost a swath of spectrum in the upper UHF band to what is called “land mobile” — two-way point-to-point wireless communications, such as emergency radio services, commercial and industrial radios, along with what would become the spectrum used by the first cell phones and pagers.
In the mid-1980s, Motorola led the charge for more wireless spectrum. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) were desperate to hold off another land mobile spectrum grab. Broadcasters complained that wireless traffic so close to TV channels would cause static and interference, driving more people to cable. But these arguments were futile in the face of Motorola’s claims that the spectrum was desperately needed in an increasingly mobile and wireless society.
The NAB needed a pressing need of their own. What about high-definition television?
In 1981, NHK demonstrated an analog 1125-line HDTV system at a San Francisco engineering convention. This demonstration prompted several American organizations to begin exploring home-grown HDTV systems. In 1982, the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) was established by several companies to develop voluntary standards for advanced television systems. AT&T’s Bell Labs, RCA and its Sarnoff Research Center, MIT and Zenith all started internal advanced television research. In 1983, NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, Zenith, General Instruments, HBO and several TV manufacturing companies contributed $100,000 each to MIT’s Center for Advanced Television Studies (CATS).
But NHK’s MUSE (multiple subnyquist sampling encoding) was the only working HDTV system extant. So the NAB invited the Japanese to give a public demonstration of MUSE in Washington, D.C., on January 7, 1987.
The NAB succeeded all too well. The MUSE demonstration was spectacular. But this didn’t make people in Washington happy. Japan had already co-opted most of America’s hegemony in consumer electronics and automobiles. The NHK demo sparked a wave of patriotic paranoia that America would lose even more technological ground to the Japanese, along with the potent economic benefits of a home-grown HDTV industry. Great pressure was put on American companies to come up with an American HDTV standard to rival and supplant the Japanese.
The NAB’s arguments that the spectrum land mobile desired would be better used by broadcasters for HDTV, buttressed by the threat of a Japanese HDTV monopoly, worked. In April 1987, the FCC decided not to reallocate the additional spectrum to land mobile.
The FCC didn’t stop at this passive stance, however. A few months later, the FCC created ACATS — the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service — headed by former FCC chair Richard E. Wiley. Wiley and ACATS declared an open competition for the creation of an American HDTV system, which set off a worldwide competition. In all, ACATS received 23 proposals for HDTV systems.
The race to crown a government-mandated HDTV standard was on.
For most of the 1980s, the various advanced television and HDTV research and development efforts barely rose above the status of interesting experimentation. But now the FCC gave these tinkerings a reality that the engineers were barely able to face. The whiz kids at AT&T’s Bell Labs, RCA and the Sarnoff Lab, Zenith, at MIT, and varying other labs suddenly exploded into a whirl of competitive energy, working against time and each other to come up with a workable winning system. They were all faced with the first hurdle, a winnowing process that ACATS had set up for mid-November 1988 that would become known as “Hell Week.”
From November 14 through 18, proponents of each of the 23 proposals sweated through grillings from the committee. It soon became obvious which were workable and which were not. After the smoke cleared, there remained only four viable contenders:
NHK’s MUSE, now known as Narrow-MUSE, a variation of the same analog interlaced system demonstrated a year earlier. MUSE’s original 1125-line signal was converted to a 750-line signal to fit into the U.S. 6 MHz channel space. But MUSE wasn’t American. Even the NAB, sensing the direction of the prevailing political winds, would abandon its early HDTV partner.
RCA and its Sarnoff Labs were working on an analog enhanced TV system called ACTV (Advanced Compatible Television). Ironically, this American entry was no longer American. In December 1985, RCA, the company that had practically invented television, color television and the NTSC standard, was sold to GE,. GE kept NBC but sold RCA’s consumer brand to France’s Thomson Consumer Electronics. The Sarnoff Lab was essentially given to SRI International.
MIT Media Lab’s Center for Advanced Television Studies (CATS), a research lab that was funded by several television-related companies, didn’t have an actual system, but had patented more than a dozen HDTV enabling technologies.
Zenith, which, along with RCA, was the furthest along in developing a working HDTV system. But Zenith was in deep financial trouble, and hoped that HDTV would revitalize its fortunes.
While the pretenders were weeded out by the “Hell Week” process, it was clear that each of the survivors had a great deal of work to do — and do it fast. ACATS declared that working systems would undergo evaluation in early 1990 at the newly-established Advanced Television Test Center (ATTC), being built in Alexandria, VA.
Zenith, for one, realized it needed help. In early 1989, the company signed a co-development deal with AT&T’s Bell Labs, the most prolific and honored research lab in the world, to help it design a partly digital TV system. Almost from the start, there was friction. Brinkley reports that the engineers at the prestigious Bell Labs began to feel resentful at being junior partners, and Zenith engineers fumed at Bell’s inability to think about consumer product realities.
A year later, RCA, Sarnoff Labs, Philips and NBC joined forces in the Advanced Television Research Consortium (ATRC) to develop its own digital HDTV system. As the evaluation deadline loomed, these two efforts battled each other in the trade press and in dueling demonstrations.
The Big Squeeze
While politicians, engineers and corporate executives battled for HDTV supremacy on the east coast, Woo Paik, an engineer at the California-based cable converter company General Instrument, was charged with developing a digital high-definition signal for satellite TV.
Paik didn’t realize that the job was thought to be impossible. At a 1989 broadcasting conference, Joe Flaherty, CBS’s legendary senior vice president for technology, infamously declared “We’ll have digital television the same day we have an antigravity machine.” A year later, Flaherty stated in The Economist that digital television “defies the laws of physics.”
Flaherty wasn’t talking through his hat. The Bell Labs side of the Zenith-AT&T partnership thought digital was the way to go, and so did the Sarnoff engineers working on the ATRC system, and an old MIT classmate of Paik’s, Jae Lim, now running MIT’s CATS effort. But while digital was desired, no one could figure out how to compress the elephantine digital television signal by 90 percent so it could fit through an eye-of-a-needle-sized 6 MHz channel.
Paik, aided by recent MIT graduate Ed Krauss, faced only half that challenge since satellite had twice the bandwidth of broadcast television. In about a year of quietly working on this engineering Rubik’s Cube, the pair succeeded in compressing the Tom Cruise actioner “Top Gun” so it could be digitally transmitted. Once the wider satellite solution had been found, the pair began work to adapt their digital compression algorithms for slimmer cable TV channels and, eventually, broadcast HDTV.
By this time, engineers at both MIT and the Zenith-Bell Labs partnership had worked their way toward partially-digital advanced television systems that weren’t quite HDTV. RCA had heard of Paik’s success and, knowing that MIT and Zenith were ahead of them, attempted to form a partnership with GI in March 1990. But tiny GI thought the RCA behemoth would simply swallow them and their system, and turned down the offer. In April, digital naysayer Joe Flaherty visited Paik’s San Diego labs for a demo. Impressed, he let GI know about the FCC HDTV race.
On May 31, 1990, GI announced itself a contender when it publicly demonstrated its digital HDTV DigiCipher converter, catching the FCC and the entire industry off-guard.
Choosing Sides and Systems
The question was, however, what was HDTV, exactly? In Dick Wiley’s eyes, “true” HDTV was twice the resolution of current television. With this in mind, Wiley made three critical pronouncements. First, Wiley declared that only this “true” HDTV standard would be accepted as the U.S. format, not simply an “enhanced” TV system. Second, the HDTV system had to use simulcasting — one 6 MHz channel dedicated to HDTV and a second 6 MHz channel for conventional broadcasting — to ease the transition from analog-to-digital. Finally, the new system had to be based on “new technologies” — which, in the wake of DigiCipher, everyone knew meant digital.
Except none of the systems in feverish development fit all three of these criteria.
Wiley also announced that the ATTC would begin physical evaluations of the various systems starting in July 1991. Each entrant would have to bring their gear down to the ATTC labs for eight weeks of testing. Lots were drawn for the all-important testing order. RCA’s analog ACTV system would go first, followed by NHK and Narrow MUSE, followed by GI, then the Sarnoff-Philips ATRC system, then Zenith-Bell Labs, followed by MIT.
These new criteria and the testing order forced some entrants to rethink their positions. Zenith had actually “fired” Bell Labs that May. But in the face of the DigiCipher announcement and the looming test date, the two partners reluctantly kissed and made up in October 1990.
And even though GI had the upper hand on digital compression, it had no complementary transmission technology. In January 1991, Woo Paik and Jae Lim became mates once again when GI and MIT formed a partnership. More importantly, GI now inherited MIT’s final testing slot, giving the new partnership a whole year to come up with a complete system, much to the dismay and anger of the other entrants.
The ATTC tests began in July 1991 with RCA’s analog “enhanced” ACTV system. When they ended in September, it was clear that ACTV was dead. NHK’s Narrow MUSE was next, but the results were not even as impressive as the original MUSE demonstration four years earlier.
On November 26, GI showed up in Virginia with the first complete digital high-definition television system, a 1050 interlaced system, complete with a transmission system built by Paik during the previous 10 months. It worked to near perfection. On March 23, 1992, GI followed its triumphal ATTC results with a public demonstration of its DigiCipher I system at the Capitol Building in Washington to an amazed crowd of Congressmen, FCC commissioners and journalists.
The Zenith-Bell engineers were unimpressed since the GI system entailed only a seven mile transmission. But the Zenith-Bell system wasn’t exactly ready for its close-up, either. After several delays and some controversy about re-testing to replace a misplaced chip, the 787.5-line progressive scan system performed, but not as well as GI’s interlaced system. Nevertheless, Zenith-Bell set up a public demo of its own in May 1992 of what it called the first true long-distance HDTV broadcast, a 75 mile transmission between Milwaukee and Chicago. Like GI’s Washington demonstration, Zenith-Bell’s system performed to great acclaim.
The RCA-Philips consortium followed this test-demonstration game plan. On June 22, RCA moved its 14 barely finished ATRC electronics cabinets — compared to GI’s two — into the ATTC labs for testing. Following less than spectacular results, RCA held its own less-than-impressive long-distance broadcast demonstration in Washington, D.C.
On August 28, evaluation began on the combined GI-MIT system, a 787.5-line progressive scan system, which also failed to live up to expectations.
But all this public HDTV sturm und drang signified nothing. By the time Bill Clinton was inaugurated on January 20, 1993, the FCC wasn’t even close to choosing an HDTV winner. In fact, Wiley had decided that none of the systems were up to snuff and proposed that re-tests be held, much to the dismay of the contestants.
PART II: THE GRAND ALLIANCE
Sensing the frustration of the contestants, Wiley sent everyone a memo proposing they work together. Conflicting corporate interests, technical disagreements, suspicions and snipings, put the kibosh on the idea — at least for the moment.
Wiley then added an incentive for an HDTV alliance by declaring that the new tests would cost each contestant an additional $612,000. By mid-May, all four groups had reluctantly ponied up half the evaluation fee and MIT moved its gear back to Virginia for the first round of re-tests.
But it was beginning to dawn on them that retesting would simply result in the same conclusions — that none of the systems were going to pass Wiley’s muster. On May 19 and 20, representatives all the affected companies met and argued and negotiated at the Grand Hotel on M Street in Washington, D.C.
On Monday morning, May 24, Wiley took a phone vote. All six organizations — AT&T/Bell Labs, GI, MIT, Philips, RCA/Sarnoff and Zenith — agreed to create a “Grand Alliance” to co-develop an American HDTV system. The primary decisions would be made by a Technical Oversight Group (TOG), comprised of eight chief engineers: Bill Beyers of AT&T, Bob Rast and Woo Paik from GI, Jae Lim from MIT, Philip’s Carlo Basile, Glen Reitmeier from Sarnoff, Don Leonard of Thomson and Zenith’s Wayne Luplow.
In July, the Grand Alliance Groups met in Chicago to divvy up the work. AT&T and GI became unhappy bedfellows in constructing the compression encoder; Sarnoff would build the “transport,” which organized the digital bitstream; Philips would build the TV set decoders. Over some strenuous objections, the emerging MPEG-2 digital video standard was mandated. In October, Dolby Digital (AC-3) was picked as the HDTV audio standard over competing systems from Philips and MIT. And in January 1994, after a shoot-out competition with GI, Zenith got the job to design the transmission system, which was called 8-VSB (8-level Vestige Side Band).
Dissenting Voices and Stalling Tactics
Even before the establishment of the Grand Alliance, dissenting voices were beginning to be heard about the pending standards. The first came from the personal computer industry.
The brilliant idea dawned on corporate executives. Since a TV and a PC both required a display screen, perhaps the two devices could be combined. Suddenly, everyone was talking about “convergence,” and TV and PC companies started pairing off to create new TV/PC convergence products.
Except that TV screens used interlace scanning and PCs use progressive scanning. As the Grand Alliance started coming together, voices within the alliance and from the PC business started shouting that progressive scanning be mandated as part of the system. Wiley deftly indicated that progressive scan was the ultimate goal, but interlaced formats would be developed for the time being.
By this time, it began to dawn on broadcasters that their HDTV bluff had been called. Their efforts to preserve their spectrum had committed them to a multi-billion dollar infrastructure rehauling, with absolutely no profit potential at the other end. How could they worm their way out of their HDTV commitments — without losing their spectrum?
Over the next several years, broadcasters initiated several stalling tactics. The first came in early 1994, when broadcasters began to make noises about how HDTV was a waste of time. In Forbes Magazine, Rupert Murdoch was quoted as saying that HDTV was a luxury. An NAB executive posited that perhaps the additional spectrum could be put to other, more profitable, purposes — perhaps data services, or sub-divided into additional multiple channels, so-called multicasting. An amendment to the pending House telecommunications bill was actually proposed to allow broadcasters to use the second channel any way they wanted. It was defeated.
By this time, the idea of auctioning off spectrum, rather than simply licensing it to purely commercial enterprises, began to take hold in a budget-balancing conscious Congress. HDTV advocates picked up on this political mood and started hinting none-too subtly that if the broadcasters didn’t want to use the second channel for HDTV, perhaps the land mobile folks would still be interested. By the fall, broadcasters were back on the HDTV wagon — for the time being.
In mid-1994, a challenge to the Grand Alliance was mounted by proponents of a new modulation scheme called COFDM — Coded Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing. Tests were held to compare COFDM to Zenith’s 8-VSB and, although the former demonstrated a great ability to reduce ghosting, Zenith’s more potent system was eventually chosen — for the time being.
Throughout 1994 and into early 1995, the PC industry continued to complain about interlacing. Broadcasters continued to complain about the costs of building new transmission towers. Cable providers started to complain about “must-carry” rules that might force them to carry both the analog and the new digital channels at the same time. And a phalanx of Hollywood directors complained that the widescreen 16:9 standard would still mean their films would either be cropped or still require letterboxing.
Meanwhile, the boys in the white coats continued working. By September 1995, there had been several successful transmission field tests in Charlotte, NC. In December, Zenith announced that 8-VSB was finished, Dolby announced AC-3 was done, and Sarnoff indicated its transport was completed. GI had finished its half of the decoder, Bell Labs its half a few months later. On March 10, the Grand Alliance 1080-line interlaced system was demonstrated for ACATS, and by March 31, the 720-line progressive scan system worked. In mid-April, the ATTC began its evaluation the two digital formats, now officially adopted as the ATSC Digital Television Standard.
A week later, the FCC opened proceedings for comments on the proposal. FCC Chairman Reed Hundt proposed opening up the spectrum to auction, but couldn’t muster enough votes. But to placate Hundt’s other misgivings, Wiley asked Robert Hopkins of the ATSC to come up with so-called “standard definition” formats, 480-line interlaced and progressive standards, in both 4:3 and 16:9 varieties. These additional standards brought the final total to 18 separate digital television formats, which were adopted by the ATSC on September 15.
In the meantime, more and more Congressmen had latched onto the idea of auctioning spectrum. In September 1995, Sen. Joseph Leiberman (D-CT), Sen. Larry Pressler (D-SD) both made inquiries about spectrum auctions, and the FCC, prodded by Hundt, asked for comments on possible auctions. In October, a budget amendment sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) requiring the auction of the second channel lost 64-25. In January 1996, presidential hopeful Bob Dole insisted that spectrum auctions could garner the treasury $70 billion.
By the fall of 1995, pressure was mounting on a reluctant Hundt to set HDTV standards. On November 28, Dick Wiley chaired the final meeting of ACATS. Despite protests from PC industry representatives, the motion to adopt the ATSC DTV Standard passed unanimously. On Dec. 12, the FCC finally opened hearings on the standard.
But it would be Congress who would make the next move.
Down the Stretch They Come
After Dole promised fellow Republicans that he would not block it, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1995 on February 2, 1996. It was the first update of the country’s telecommunications laws in 60 years. It looked as if the broadcasters would get their free spectrum.
On May 9, the FCC finally took the final steps to adopt the ATSC standard by issuing a notice of rule making — against Hundt’s protest. A few weeks later, Hundt heard from his former college roommate, NAB president Eddie Fritts. Fritts, along with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and three other congressional leaders, sent a letter to Hundt suggesting he get with the HDTV program.
On June 17, WRAL, the CBS affiliate in Raleigh, NC, applied for and received the first ATSC HDTV license. The station began data broadcasting on July 23. But the honor of the nation’s first commercial HDTV broadcast went to WRC, an NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., which began HDTV transmissions at 9:45 pm on WHD-TV, channel 34. Except the only TV capable of receiving it was in the station manager’s office.
Throughout the rest of the summer, the powers-that-be continued their ATSC standard debate. In mid-July, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) urged adoption, then backed off a month later. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the cable TV lobby, came out against the standard because of its fear of “must carry” rules and the difficulty of reconciling the ATSC’s 8-VSB scheme with cable’s Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM) standard. In September, the Clinton administration, after prodding from Bill Gates, backed the PC industry anti-interlacing protests.
But the broadcasting and consumer electronics manufacturing lobbies soon reached accommodation with the PC people. On November 25, 1996, the three enemies together urged FCC adoption of the ATSC standards.
Finally, on Christmas Eve, nine years after the formation of ACATS, the FCC took the plunge and adopted the ATSC standard.
But not the whole standard. The FCC mandated 8-VSB modulation, MPEG-2 encoding and Dolby 5.1, but none of the actual 18 ATSC formats. The FCC side-stepped the interlacing and aspect ratio traps by leaving it to the market to decide which specific formats to deliver. But the U.S. finally had a government-mandated digital television format.
Believe it or not, that was the easy part.
PART III: ON THE AIR
On April 3, 1997, the other shoe dropped. Despite final protests from Dole, McCain and numerous other politicians, the FCC officially “lent” more than 1600 local broadcasters their second channels for HDTV transmission. Once the transition to digital broadcasting was made, the “borrowed” spectrum would be returned to the government for auction by January 1, 2006. “But as the broadcasters well know,” sighed a prescient Wall Street Journal, “things the government says will happen…years from now, usually don’t.”
In January 1998, TV manufacturers showed off the first HDTVs at the Consumer Electronics Show. By September, the first HDTV sets, from Mitsubishi and Panasonic, reached stores — just in time for the first HDTV network broadcasts, due to begin November 1.
CBS jumped the gun on Thursday, October 29, when it broadcast the launch of the John Glenn space shuttle mission. And right on schedule, 23 local stations around the country began HDTV broadcasts Sunday morning, November 1, 1998. Network HDTV broadcasting was inaugurated that evening on ABC with the movie, “101 Dalmatians” on “The Wonderful World of Disney.”
The following weeks saw myriad HDTV broadcasting firsts. CBS broadcast the first HDTV NFL game, the New York Jets versus the Buffalo Bills, on November 8. PBS broadcast its first HDTV program, “Chihuly over Venice,” a documentary on Venice glass blower, the following night. The first regular season series HDTV broadcast was CBS’s “Chicago Hope” on November 18.
But the networks were now crabby about the lack of HDTV sets being sold. The problem was that broadcasters didn’t want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to pump out programming if no one had sets to watch them on. And consumers would only buy sets if there were something to watch.
The Catch-22 was partially solved on May 9 when Mitsubishi announced it would sponsor CBS’s primetime HDTV schedule starting in the fall. Three weeks later, Panasonic announced it would loan ABC HDTV gear so the network could broadcast Monday Night Football games and Super Bowl XXXIV in HD. This started a trend in manufacturer-sponsored network HDTV fare.
The Modulation Wars
Despite these sponsorship deals, there was still a great deal of broadcaster grumbling. They liked free spectrum, thank you very much. They just didn’t want to use it for HDTV.
Sinclair, a 59-station broadcast group based in Baltimore, decided the best delaying tactic was to challenge the underlying technology of the ATSC standard — 8-VSB modulation. In mid-1999, Sinclair asked the FCC to reconsider 8-VSB and allow broadcasting using COFDM instead.
During the summer of 1999, Sinclair orchestrated a series of well-publicized demonstrations to illustrate the supposed inferiority of 8-VSB and the equally supposed superiority of COFDM. The heart of the argument was that 8-VSB was prone to something called “multipath distortion” — the tendency of an HDTV signal in a heavy urban area to bounce off buildings and create double images. COFDM was not prone to these problems.
The FCC decided to conduct its own tests. On September 30, the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology report concluded that multipath distortion of the otherwise more robust 8-VSB would eventually be solved and that “the relative benefits of changing the DTV transmission to COFDM are unclear and would not outweigh the costs of making such a revision. OET therefore recommends that the ATSC 8-VSB standard be retained.”
Instead of discouraging Sinclair or its allies, this report emboldened them. Between lawsuits, new testing, adoption hearings, et al, pushing this COFDM thing could delay expensive HDTV implementation for years to come. So, on October 11, Sinclair and nearly 300 other stations officially petitioned the FCC to revise the ATSC standard. Three weeks later, the COFDM ranks had swelled to nearly half of all the nation’s public and commercial stations.
On February 4, 2000, the FCC summarily tossed Sinclair’s petition, but left the door open to further review. In March, the ATSC agreed to consider including COFDM in the U.S. standard. In June, ABC and NBC jointly asked the FCC “to continue to gather more evidence on the performance of 8-VSB,” suggesting a new six-month technical review.
The modulation debate was not the only HDTV fire that the FCC had to put out. There was still no cable compatibility despite on-going negotiations between HDTV manufacturers and the cable providers. Hitachi and Toshiba were selling sets labeled “HDTV-ready” that weren’t really, forcing the FCC to step in and define exactly what “HDTV-ready” really meant. And several broadcasters were once again floating the idea of using the second channel for multicasting — or simply leasing it outright — instead of using it for HDTV.
By the summer of 2000, Congress was hopping mad. House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-LA) told the parties to get their acts together — or else face strict government mandates.
The FCC got the message. On January 19, 2001, the FCC reaffirmed 8-VSB once, for all and forever. The commission also eased the cable hurdle by not requiring cable operators to carry both analog and digital broadcasts from a single station.
The Sinclair brouhaha was the last major organized attempt to derail the transition to digital television. In the last two years, efforts have been made to solve as many of the remaining problems as possible.
In May 2001, the one millionth digital television was sold. The cable, satellite and TV manufacturers were coming closer to agreement on standardized digital connectors with copy protection software. The TV networks, with the visible exception of Fox, put more and more HDTV programming on the air.
Three issues remain: broadcaster transition and spectrum recovery, cable compatibility, and consumer acceptance.
In May 2003, all commercial stations are required to start digital broadcasting, but hundreds of stations have applied for extensions. As of late February, less than half — 768 stations — have made the transition.
The FCC has delayed pre-auctions of recoverable spectrum a half dozen times because it was uncertain when — if ever — the spectrum would actually be recovered. The FCC has introduced several initiatives to coax broadcasters to get digital and give up their borrowed spectrum, largely to little effect. On New Year’s Eve 2001, FCC Commissioner Michael Powell reluctantly admitted just how intractable broadcasters would be concerning their spectrum. “[B]ased on the way the DTV transition works, [the spectrum] will be occupied for a very long time absent a change in the law. It’s not coming back in 2006.”
On December 19, 2002, one of the final technical hurdles was surmounted. TV makers and cable operators agreed on a set of “plug-and-play” specifications that will make all digital televisions HDTV cable compatible. The first of these HDTV cable-compatible sets could be in stores by this Christmas.
The final hurdle is consumer acceptance. For all the contentious efforts of technology companies, broadcasters and the government, only five million HDTVs have thus far been sold to a largely apathetic public. The total switch to digital will only happen when 85 percent of the country have literally bought-in.
HDTV may have arrived, in spite of a snake pit filled with conflicting profit, pride, political, power and product motives. But apparently there are still more miracles needed.