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As mentioned in my prior wheezes on this subject, the present US economic climate would appear to present over-the-air (OTA) television broadcasters with fantastic possibilities. With the tremendous opportunities offered by digital production and transmission (i.e. HD and SD multi-channel and mobile and IP capabilities all at the same time), and most of it "free" to viewers, one would think that the time is ideal for OTAs to take a big chunk of penetration from their pay brethren. However, as an undying cheerleader for success of OTA, I feel there are a couple of wishes that must be granted before broadcasters have any hopes of stopping and successfully reversing their 15% household penetration ratio. First the technical wish:

Much better receiver antennas, tuners and signal propagation systems

Not much has changed in television receiver RF tuner and antenna performance in fifty years. What has improved is mostly found in signal distribution technology driven by cable TV. These include advances in coax cable technology, tuner shielding and selectivity. Oh, yes, remote controlled automatic electronic tuning with elegant digital displays, auto-programming, scan, search, guides etc. certainly improved usability, and the tuning part to the tuner in the analog world is really good. But in the digital world, it remains a crutch. It is slow (even in its fifth generation), can't handle dynamic reflections, and completely crashes when it doesn't get fed for an instant or when its delicate little bit stream is corrupted in the least. (The TV spectrum is a dirty place.) But worse of all the "sniffer" parts of the tuning system, including the antenna, is seriously deficient. Probably, all RF parameters need to be improved by at least a factor of two to provide an elegant, robust competitive service.

The task is daunting. Most single band RF systems can be designed to provide very acceptable performance within a 2:1 frequency range. Designing a system to provide vastly improved performance over several non-adjacent bands comprising a 13:1 range looks well neigh impossible. Therefore, the receiver cannot bear the total burden. This is indeed a systems challenge, involving all aspects of broadcaster and receiver design. Hopefully, the elements contained within the upcoming ATSC Mobile/Handheld standard may provide a firm basis for expanding the performance standard for the overall OTA television market. Such technologies including single frequency networks and circular/elliptical antenna polarization on the broadcasting side and "fractal" antennas on the receiving side are the types of applications that will be needed. Also, the sensitive sensing technology being developed for the so-called "white-space" (unused TV channel spectrum) IP devices would seem to have a direct application to TV tuner improvement solutions.

Now the commercial wish:

Quality programming that OTA viewers will want to watch

All the technology in the world in its most highly refined faction will not secure the commercial success of any media. That success depends on providing content and services that users desire. Competition takes care of price.

One of the most commercially desirable aspects of the Cable business model is that users can provide their own programming, i.e. Cable provides a "vertical" product model - all news, all sports, etc. OTA networks, and therefore local broadcasters, have utilized, since the dawn of time, a "horizontal" model, beating themselves up trying to constantly second guess what the viewers want and when they want it. That model is failing. But the broadcasters do have three major marketing advantages: their services are free, ubiquitous, and the advertising model works. With a lot more programming channels available in the digital world, seems to me they could get a lot more game by hunting in packs.

Those are my wishes. But then,
If wishes were fishes,
And fishes were Fords,
Then all the beggars could ride.

- Ed

Posted by Ed Milbourn, March 23, 2009 8:47 AM

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About Ed Milbourn

After graduating from Purdue University with degrees in Electrical Engineering and Industrial Education in 1961 and 1963 respectively, Ed Milbourn joined the RCA Home Entertainment Division in 1963. During his thirty-eight year career with RCA (later GE and Thomson multimedia), Mr. Milbourn held the positions of Field Service Engineer, Manager of Technical Training and Manager of Sales Training. In 1987, he joined Thomson's Product Management group as Manager of Advanced Television Systems Planning, with responsibilities including Digital Television and High Definition Television Product Management. Mr. Milbourn retired from Thomson multimedia in December 2001, and is now a Consumer Electronics Industry consultant.