By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
It was going to be glorious, positively Jetsonian. With digital broadcasting, the television industry once promised, the TV set would be transformed into a miraculous info-appliance, the modern household's electronic brain.
No longer would the TV be a mere conduit for sitcoms and soap operas. With digital broadcasts, the TV -- or perhaps the PCTV -- would become a shopping portal, an information node, an Internet-surfing console. Thanks to digital's limitless interactive capabilities, you'd be able to call up player stats during ballgames, play video games with people across the country or take college-level courses from your couch. Each night while you slept, a digital "data" broadcast would send a customized daily newspaper to your set-top box; all you'd have to do in the morning was hit "print."
Well, the future officially arrives this week, and it's . . . not exactly as advertised.
After years of development, billions of dollars of investment and one fiendishly complex conversion program, all the nation's broadcast TV stations will go digital by Friday, the government-mandated deadline. The traditional analog system of broadcasting -- used since TV's invention in the 1920s -- will fade out. Henceforth, all broadcasts will be transmitted in the language of computers, effectively rendering the differences between the PC and the TV moot.
It's true that television is better, more varied and more vivid, because of digital technology. Long before local TV stations reached their digital finish line, cable and satellite TV companies were already showing viewers what digital TV looks like: widescreen, high-definition pictures and crisp sound, multi-hundred-channel lineups, with movies and TV series "on demand."
A decade ago, broadcasters said they were going to offer all that and even more. They never did.
The journey from analog to digital broadcasting has been long and convoluted. Starting in the late '80s, TV stations and their broadcast network partners lobbied Congress to award them new channels free of charge. On these new channels, they promised Congress they'd develop dazzling new HDTV programs. Once HDTV was up and running, they'd hand back their old, non-HDTV channels, which the government could then sell to bidders.
But then two things happened: Broadcasters became intrigued by emerging digital technology, and HDTV began to seem like an increasingly expensive proposition. So industry lobbyists went back to Congress in the mid-1990s and asked for flexibility. Instead of being locked into offering HDTV and only HDTV, they asked lawmakers for permission to use their second channels to create digital broadcasts, which could be used for all sorts of services. These services, broadcasters figured, would surely generate vast new moneymaking opportunities.
The possibilities began to seem endless: "Instead of 'Good Morning America,' think of 'Good Morning, Diane,' " with customized headlines and video clips and "special interests, downloaded to your TV at night," MIT futurist Nicholas Negroponte theorized in an interview with the trade magazine Electronic Media in 1997. Negroponte, an adviser to the broadcast industry's chief lobbying group, the National Association of Broadcasters, had plenty of other ideas for digital broadcasts: interactive chats with famous people, "on-demand" pay television services (which cable wound up offering, but broadcasters never did), even cellphone service via the local TV stations' digital broadcast towers.
That same year, David D. Smith, president of Sinclair Broadcast Group, told a congressional panel that digital signals could someday be subdivided so that one part of a region received news of local interest while another part of the region saw its "own" newscast. Sports fans could become their own TV directors, Smith said, switching among channels offering different views of the same game.
Policymakers liked what they heard. In 1996, Congress gave the broadcast industry carte blanche so long as TV stations continued to provide viewers with at least one channel of regular old television.
Yet, more than a decade later, on the eve of completing the nation's switch to digital TV, none of those bright, blue-sky proposals has been realized. Asked last week for a list of the interactive services that newly digital TV stations will be providing in their communities, the NAB said it couldn't name any.
Instead, TV broadcasters are using their digital powers simply to broadcast more TV shows, albeit in crisper digital format. The Washington area's 12 region-wide stations are providing an additional 14 stations, including three offering local weather forecasts. One of the WJLA (Channel 7) digital channels features reruns of old TV shows, such as "The A-Team."
So after enduring loads of hassle -- coupons! deadlines! converter boxes! -- the net impact of the digital conversion will be a few more channels and the chance to see Mr. T again.
The brave new world of digital broadcasting turned out to be modest because "broadcasters never really tried to innovate," says Joel Brinkley, a Stanford University journalism professor. Brinkley, who chronicled the development of HDTV as a New York Times reporter and in his 1997 book "Defining Vision: The Battle for the Future of Television," adds, "No one expected all 1,500 TV stations to cook up something creative and innovative, but the wonder of it is that none of them did."
Why? Brinkley says the people who run "mature industries" like TV broadcasting don't really understand businesses other than the one they're in. Technological change can be paralyzing, he says.
But the NAB's spokesman, Dennis Wharton, points to more practical realities. New developments were stalled by "a chicken-and-egg problem": Broadcasters couldn't offer the services envisioned until the hardware -- PC-like TV sets or mobile devices -- existed, and hardware makers were reluctant to build products for a market that didn't exist. "I suppose it's a fair criticism that many services that we discussed are not available," Wharton says, "but it's not necessarily because of broadcasters."
Actually, it is, says Reed Hundt, who was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1993 to 1997. He says broadcasters repeatedly sought delays in the transition to digital TV, dooming any chance that they'd deliver on their early promises.
While broadcasters dithered, he says, technology and the computer industry zipped by them. The Internet began to develop, and personal computers, "smart" phones and mobile devices, not TV sets, became the household's technological hubs.
"They were their own worst enemy," Hundt says now. "The content evolved and [consumer] behavior changed. [TV stations] missed the whole thing."
Hundt says the lesson for broadcasters is the same one that the nation's troubled newspapers and auto companies are learning: Failing to innovate and capitalize on changing markets isn't just a lost opportunity -- it can be a death sentence. "Broadcasting had a heck of a run for 50, 60 years," he says. "It's not completely irrelevant now, but it almost is. When it's over, it's over."
Well, just wait, retorts the NAB's Wharton. At the moment, he says, broadcast stations are experimenting with a new mobile digital technology that could someday bring live, local TV channels to cellphones, laptops or the back seats of vehicles. "This is really going to be the next big thing," he says.
Sounds like an exciting new technology, a vision of things to come. Now, where have we heard that before?