Tom Anthony
PortFolio Weekly September 1-7 1998

Like or not, the way we all watch television is about to change. Some say DTV, or Digital Television will be as big a milestone to our generation as the popular use of radio was to our grandparents. “There is one important difference,” says Keith O’Malley, Director of Engineering for WTKR TV, “The government didn’t come out with a law that would turn all books into blanks.” That’s what local television broadcasters are faced with in the immediate future. The federal Communications Commission has mandated that all television stations, public and commercial, begin digital broadcasting no later than 2003. Local stations will begin digital broadcasts well before then on a second channel, so you’ll still be able to use your old set for now. But all analog (current technology) television broadcasts will cease in 2006.

It’s the major project going on behind the scenes at TV stations all across Hampton Roads. In Portsmouth where WAVY has just put the finishing touches on a new studio for the Fox news at 10, General Manager Ed Munson is quick to point out the state-of-the-art additions. “We bought 5 new digital cameras,” Munson says “these are HDTV ready all we have to do is add a chip and switch monitors. As of now we no longer run commercials or news segments from video tape. It’s all off the hard drive. We’ve spent something like 1.1 million dollars for all the new equipment, but some of it we would have needed to buy with or without the second news operation in preparation for the station going digital.” Munson says.

“For WHRO” says John Morison, President and General Manager of the local PBS affiliate “digital broadcasting is not just a frill or an option, it’s a matter of survival.” Morison recently hosted one of 40 national stops for the DTV express a PBS sponsored high tech display for the new technology. Digital TV is a lot more than what most people visualize. It’s not just the high resolution wide screen motion picture look of HDTV, or high definition television. Although with HDTV’s built in five channel CD-quality surround sound audio, that is the Hollywood side of this new medium.

A digital broadcast is about data. “It could be one really good picture,” explains Jud French with the DTV express “or four standard quality channels, all playing at the same time. That’s called multicasting. We’ll still have room left over to broadcast Internet-like data. So imagine hooking up your computer and getting a dynamic web site that explains in depth the issues presented in the television program. Full interview transcripts. That sort of thing. Or in the case of educational programming we could broadcast a computer program to the educators in the classroom giving them full access to all curriculum materials. That could include inter-active games for the students, or anything else. All live, all at the same time. Fact is, right now we can only guess at the full capability of this technology.” French says.

WHRO has a plan. “We see this as a perfect way,” says WHRO President Morison “to fulfill our educational mission to the community.” Daytime broadcasts would be in multicast, so there would be a WHRO-1, WHRO-2, WHRO-3, and WHRO-4. One channel would focus on the PBS ready-to-learn line up. This includes programs like Mister Rogers Neighborhood, Barney, and Sesame Street. The station also plans to offer a related computer data service which would enable mom to download learning exercises.

On WHRO-2, grade school kids could follow lessons in the class room. The third channel is reserved for College level learning while the last channel is intended to carry public service programming such as city council meetings. All would have related computer data available. This could come in the form of computer programs or a web site intended to augment lessons with work books students could print out right at their desk. “Prime time would be HDTV time,” Morison says “With signature PBS programs like Nature, NOVA and Great performances in wide screen format and CD quality surround sound.”

The jury is still out on what commercial stations will offer. “I think,” says WTKR Director of Engineering Keith O’Malley “it will be mostly High Definition. In my opinion, in commercial television the consumer is not going to want the four or five extra channels in standard definition. Look, you already have that choice on cable where there is fifty or more choices. People still tend to watch their favorite handful of eight or ten channels no matter how many are available. So why would they want four more clones of channel three? No I don’t think you’ll see people go out and spend a lot of money for a new TV that gets this really great picture and use it to watch standard shows. Although I can really see that for the educational programming at WHRO.” O’Malley says.

“The opportunity for stations like channel three,” according to O’Malley “is for creative use of the data transmission capacity of digital television. Microsoft is already talking about renting regular intervals on digital TV stations. Say five minutes an hour. That’s enough to transmit a big program like Office ‘98. So instead of going to the computer store and buying the CD ROM, the office manager can order it on-line and receive the whole program in a coded broadcast from us.” says O’Malley.

In any event broadcasters don’t have much longer to figure it all out. Most will begin a dual analog/digital broadcast next year. But in the case of stations like WAVY’s channel ten and channel 43 WVBT, and WTKR, they’ll begin using digital technology in the next few weeks. Even if you can’t see it broadcast in high definition, the way the inside of the TV stations work is already changing. For the better? “When we begin multicasting at WHRO,” quipped Manager Morison “maybe we could reserve one channel for one continuous fund drive.” You be the judge.