The Little Picture: DTV is here–smile already, why don’t ya?

Aug 26, 2002  •  Post A Comment

It’s not every day that people go wild over an 850-foot steel tower. So when I learned that KTWU-TV, the tiny public television station in Topeka, Kan., was throwing a big party for the big metal stick that will soon hold its digital TV antenna, I had to be there.
Elizabeth Farnsworth, the Topeka native and veteran “NewsHour” correspondent, was there, too, as were various local dignitaries, to kick off KTWU’s $2.2 million capital campaign earlier this year. The money will allow the station to pay for the rest of its DTV conversion. Like many public stations across the country, KTWU has decided to make lemonade out of the lemons the government has ordered it to purchase. Obviously the unfunded DTV mandate is a burden, particularly for smaller stations, but many pubcasters have chosen to look at it as an opportunity to offer their communities new services made possible by the technology.
Public stations, in fact, are the only places where I detect even the slightest interest, let alone enthusiasm, in moving forward with DTV. Why is that?
“Public broadcasting doesn’t have a profit motive,” said Bryon Schlosser, a Topeka businessman heading up the KTWU campaign. “We can see benefits and possibilities with multicasting and datacasting that commercial broadcasters don’t.” Schlosser and station manager Eugene Williams are cooking up several local programs, including distance learning and business education, that they plan to offer to eastern Kansans through DTV. I’ve heard similar ideas being floated here in Kansas City at KCPT-TV.
Fulfilling the PBS dream
On the national scene, PBS plans to be a leader in DTV programming. That means not only plenty of high-definition broadcasts but also the realization of a long-deferred dream: offering multiple PBS channels to affiliates. Streaming data could be put to countless uses, educational or otherwise.
Now look at the commercial side. It’s a whole different story. Know any commercial broadcasters who are genuinely stoked about the digital future? I’ve met one -Nat Ostroff, Sinclair Broadcast Group’s head wonk-and once in a while I’ll read a quote from some executive who’s all giddy about his station’s high-definition picture (as he should be). But around my town, and probably your town too, station managers don’t get too worked up over the DTV transition. Or if they do, it’s because they want to spout off about the cost (very high), the audience (very low), or both.
That’s why Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell’s move to kick-start the DTV transition was so crucial. Powell’s decision to require the DTV chip in every new TV over 13 inches by 2007 was not just a welcome boost for broadcasters. It was also a wonderfully symbolic gesture. Here’s Powell, a guy no one figured to be a booster of onerous government rules, pasting on a smile, just like those hardy public broadcasters, and saying, “By gum, we’re gonna have us the best digital transition EVER!”
Now it’s up to the rest of the digital players to follow his lead. And I’m not just picking on commercial broadcasters. The studios are guilty of holding things up by raising a stink over “broadcast flags.” Hollywood won’t sign off on DTV telecasts of their movies unless broadcasters agree to embed the signal with a copy-protection flag.
Somebody needs to stand up and tell the studios where they can plant that flag. Hollywood has tried playing hardball with the TV industry before-at the dawning of the television age-and it didn’t work. This time around, it won’t be “Hopalong Cassidy” and B movies that break the studios’ will. It’ll be high-def movies from HBO and Animal Planet and National Geographic and other cable companies that couldn’t give a crap about copy protection. Anyway, who cares if “The Master of Disguise” ever makes it to television?
These studio executives should walk into electronics stores and talk to dealers, like I have. Business is good, they’ll tell you, but it could be so much better. And the biggest culprit, they say, are the mixed messages consumers are picking up from industry bigwigs.
Go buy that HDTV
DTV will revolutionize home entertainment … unless we decide it won’t. So go buy that HDTV today; someday we might let you watch something on it.
Everybody involved in the DTV transition needs to realize their position papers and press releases aren’t helping things, no matter how many times they say they’re “excited” about DTV. They need to show they’re excited. They need to settle their differences, quit being so paranoid, step on the gas, put on a happy face and throw consumers a great big high-definition party. If they do all that, they’ll have white Christmases for years to come.
Turns out that last month’s column, in which I contrasted the successes of local public television with the mess at PBS, was a little too optimistic. On Aug. 8, the aforementioned KCPT, citing a plunge in annual giving, announced layoffs and the cancellation of all but one of its locally produced programs.
KCPT joined a growing list of public TV stations across the country that laid off staff in response to budget crunches. Like many nonprofits, public stations were hard hit by the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, which crunched charitable giving to many nonprofits.
Aaron Barnhart’s column appears monthly in EM. He covers television for the Kansas City Star, and his Web site (www.tvbarn.com) covers TV topics daily.