Killing the killer ap

February 1, 2001

Someone has to say it: maybe traditional broadcasting should just stay analog.

The US transition to digital broadcasting is in trouble. It's probably not news to you that both the TV and radio conversions to digital transmission are mired in confusion and conflict. North American DTV has a format standard that is dying on the vine. The United States doesn't have a DAB format standard, nor even any spectrum to work with. This is certainly not the future that anyone would have predicted for broadcasting a decade ago. So what happened?

The answer lies in the well-known contextual shift that has made broadcasting no longer the sole electronic transmission medium. Broadcasters can't dictate new directions to consumers and expect them to follow willingly anymore. What if you had a new format and nobody came? We're witnessing a real outcome of that hypothetical question in the United States today.

Inconceivable as it may seem to some veteran broadcasters, spectacular failures are in progress for systems that were once considered natural digital heirs to the analog throne. The spoils of the digital age seem about to slip through broadcasters' fingers into the ready hands of new competitors.

What went wrong?

Beyond metaphor, the hard facts are equally disconcerting: For U.S. DTV, numerous improper assumptions, flawed tests and general hubris have led to its current predicament. In hindsight, this is inexcusable, because all odds were in that industry's favor. At least U.S. radio had a tougher environment that it can blame for its current difficulties: The distraction of IBOC, the cleverly politicked emergence of S-DARS, and the concurrent DTV spectrum grab all kept terrestrial radio from obtaining new allocations for digital services. U.S. radio broadcasters are now left hoping against hope for an IBOC deliverance. It is shocking that an industry as powerful as American radio has been reduced to awaiting a deus ex machina breakthrough to salvage its future.

The United States' only real success in digital broadcasting so far has been in satellite television. This has raised the stakes on whether satellite radio can equal that performance. If so, it does not bode well for the local broadcast station's future in the digital world.

Someone has to say it: maybe traditional broadcasting should just stay analog, and let digital media transmission happen in the IP domain, or a similar format created specifically for packetized, unidirectional, multichannel delivery. The idea of an individual waveform transmitter per broadcast service made sense in the analog broadcasting age, when there was really no other practical alternative. It doesn't automatically apply as the most appropriate or cost-effective method in the digital age, given the other methods available.

Note that this is not a question of content but rather of service. Just because a service is multiplexed and delivered via satellite doesn't mean it can't include local content, as recent trends in satellite TV have shown. This implies that local broadcasters' days are not necessarily numbered. On the contrary, there is a strong need for some local content in all broadcast services, and no one is better suited to provide this than today's terrestrial broadcasters. But if these operators persist in the notion that transition to the next generation of their businesses involves only a transmitter transplant, they may soon join the annals of American scientific history.

Next steps

Trends in the growth of the web are obvious: broadband, wireless, satellite, edge servers—all of which have been discussed on these pages (and will continue to be). Perhaps even more important is the trend towards embedded devices as media platforms. The potential combined impact of these developments could be enormous, ultimately dislodging conventional broadcasting as the primary media delivery system for consumers.

Of course, such projections can be just as wrong as the last decade's forecasts for digital broadcasting have proven to be. As with any paradigm shift, many divergent functions all have to align in phase, and new standards will have to propagate quickly. Because the standards-setting process is also different in the Internet environment than it is in the broadcast space, this actually has a good likelihood of happening. It's a new media world, and broadcasters need to adapt to it. The advantage of holding a scarce resource isn't enough anymore. Without these adjustments, broadcasters threaten the very lifeblood of their phenomenally successful industry.

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