Back To The Rabbit-Eared Future

In the 1950’s there are some amazing photographs of urban rooftops piled high with TV antennae. Not unlike Lucy and Ethel, if you wanted a clear TV picture, it was up to the roof to get it. Beginning in 2009, we may see that all over again.

Many of my friends and family members have been asking me for advice on which HDTV to buy. After reviewing their unique environment and needs, I respond with a recommendation on a particular TV set and tell them to buy a good antenna to go along with it.

Most of the time, I get a pretty odd response, like “But my cable provider gives me HDTV, what’s with the antenna?” I smile and start to explain…

Our current TV standard in the United States is NTSC, an analog signal that produces 525 lines of resolution (although only 486 are viewable area). The HDTV standard, which by the way is a group of standards, is a digital signal with resolutions like 720p, 1080i and 1080p. By its nature, HDTV requires much more bandwidth to deliver its superior picture quality.

Your local channels broadcast its signal over-the-air in NTSC today. They do so in uncompressed fashion, giving its audience the opportunity to receive the best possible picture. When the DTV cutover occurs in 2009, broadcasters will send a digital signal (DTV) to its audience via their broadcast tower in “uncompressed” format. I put the word uncompressed into quotes because often a TV station will have already converted, compressed or otherwise manipulated the original program several times before it is broadcast to you. For the sake of our conversation, however, we’ll assume the signal coming out from a TV station’s digital broadcast tower is pristine and uncompressed.

Enter cable and satellite providers. We all want lots of channels and choices, so cable and satellite operators oblige. They take their physical cable or satellite transponder bandwidth and fit in as many channels as they possible can. And guess what? They can’t fit in all those channels we want without compressing them!

Even with NTSC signals, cable and satellite providers are compressing the signals to some degree. This will only be exacerbated when we move to DTV/HDTV in March 2009 and they have so much more to cram into the same fixed bandwidth. The results are both perceptible and measurable. Go to your best TV in the house and wait for some white text to displayed (like during newscasts) and look around the edges of the letters. See the jagged “interference”? How about a fade to or from black…see the blocks or odd discoloration? You can thank compression for that.

Enter the almighty antenna. Like in the early days of TV, it provides (when properly adjusted) the best picture possible. It does so because each local channel puts out an uncompressed signal and your unpretentious (and free from monthly service charges) antenna can pull in that same pristine, full signal for your viewing pleasure. Why would you accept anything less?

So, whether you are buying a 20” or 90” TV, if you want the best possible picture you’ll be picking up an old fashioned antenna with your high tech TV.

Under most practical scenarios, you’ll still likely to use cable or satellite as your everyday source of content. It’s far easier to channel surf a mix of channels that way. But, when you’re ready to have that TV really blow you away, break out the rabbit ears and enjoy.


Is TV Fooling Itself About Its Future?

Lean forward or lean back? It really comes down to that basic question. Consumers are still trying to figure out which type of viewing experience they want, with whom and with what device they are willing to have it. Meanwhile, traditional content providers are struggling in the high stakes battle for your attention by experimenting, analyzing and augmenting their content (and its delivery). We are very much embroiled in the latest version of the "chicken-or-the-egg" debate; at stake is mass communication as we know it.

Television was born as a "lean back" mass medium. Due to the inherent nature of broadcasting, a broadcaster delivers a signal that you can choose either to watch or not. Until the mid-1970s, with three to seven channels in each market, you had little choice about (or affect on) the content other than to "interact" by changing to another channel. Somehow, even with very limited content choice and no viewer feedback (besides ratings), this system worked exceedingly well.

The attack on television's business model started in the 1970s. Cable television brought more choice to the consumer. Instead of a handful of stations to watch, we were afforded the ability to choose from dozens of channels. As superstations, movie channels (HBO) and specialty channels (ESPN, MTV) came to market, the audience began a natural process of forming affinity groups. In turn, this allowed cable channels to fine tune their content to a particular interest. It also forced a once homogenous audience into smaller fragmented audience pools, diluting the business model of television forever. Meanwhile, TV stations, due to their bound FCC agreement to serve the general public in return for broadcast spectrum, were severely hampered in their ability to cater to viewers' individual interests.

Other technologies crowded their way into our TV viewing habits in the 1980s and '90s. VCRs gave viewers both a way to time-shift programming to their schedule and the ability to rent/purchase content not available from a traditional broadcaster. DVD players extended that paradigm and improved overall quality, even above broadcast standards. Today, DVRs (TiVo) best VCR technology with not only time-shifting ability, but in some cases location and device-shifting. Satellite television provided even rural viewers a wealth of viewing choices. All of these technologies extended the use of the TV screen well beyond what anyone had originally imagined.

Aside from more content choices and the preceding technology changes, television is also going through its own government-imposed change right now that further challenges the stability of the business. Forced digital television broadcasting is less than a year away. On February 19, 2009 nearly every U.S. over-the-air TV station will be required to end analog broadcasts and exclusively offer content in digital format. To consumers, this will be a dizzying and difficult transition. No one knows for sure the true impact, but the complexity of digital television far surpasses any prior disruptive technology.

Digital TV is meant to usher in a new era of television with superior images and extensible frameworks that will eventually blur the lines of one-way television broadcasting. However, many fear that there are so many technical standards and confusing consumer options that the cut-over to DTV may well fracture and damage the already fragile and fickle relationship between the medium and its audience.

So, what is television to do? Is it time to hang up the spurs and head into the sunset? Only the extremists would paint such a (anti)climatic ending. Instead, the industry must look inside itself to evolve into what consumers want

It is a daunting and difficult task to even make intelligent guesses as to what consumers want. However, I think it may be easier to head in the right direction if the industry looked at its viewers as two distinct groups: consumers and audiences.

There is no doubt that today's technology-spoiled consumers want their content when they want it and where they want it…and with no restrictions on redistribution. However, while iPods, YouTube and SlingBox are popular now, there is a flip side as well. The flip side is that audiences are willing to shell out more than $1000 a pop on big screen televisions. Why? Because it creates a better and more visceral user experience with the medium of television. These TVs are typically placed in the most prominent part of a home and proudly adorned with accessories (such as surround sound) to enhance the very personal relationship humans continue to have with their televisions. So, I believe television will survive and have an audience for years to come because it is part of our culture and being. I also believe that broadcasters need to satisfy consumers as well.

Despite the fact that DTV, and specifically HDTV, will likely save the medium of television with their audience, there is a new demographic of television consumers who's need must also be satisfied. This demographic exists mostly because new technologies create anytime, anywhere convenience. Rather than sit on the sidelines, broadcasters need to more directly program for these devices and, if consumers want it for free, do so in a manner where advertising cannot be skipped.

For consumers wanting to stream or download whole shows for time/place-shifting, programming should be offered without commercial interruption, for a fee. Use of content aggregators (such as iTunes and the newly launched makes the most sense here rather than creating silos of content separated by network. The new revenue stream will make up for any lost advertising dollars.

As for consumers who want to watch clips rather than whole shows, another strategy needs to be deployed. In this case, I think more experimentation is required. Too often, I see news and information packages (clips) that can be streamed for free sans commercial content. In my opinion, providing consumers with clips should come with a catch. Either they should be have interstitial ads or have a specific promotional hook to the broadcast program from which the content is clipped.

Further, this demanding consumer demographic wants to stay connected to their local market. In a pinch they'll watch their favorite network show on a foreign station, but if they can find it, the show provides more comfort and connection coming from their local broadcaster.

On this front, the response needs to be swift and sweeping. Broadcasters, led by their networks, should strike deals with the cellular industry to multicast directly to cell phones. Notice the use of the word multicast. Given the fact that cellular carriers own the entire "last mile" of their data networks, it is possible to create true cellular broadcasts. And, broadcasting is exactly what cannot occur on the Internet, which has been holding back efficient transport of TV programming in that medium.

At first, I suspect that cellular broadcasting will be localized to the designated market area (DMA). However, if traction occurs, it should be possible to make local stations available nationally. Baking in the ability to receive these broadcasts should be easy as cell phones continue to evolve into mobile computing devices.

Trailblazing a new way to deliver over-the-air programming to cell phone users is one part of television's evolution. The other is to carefully manage the emerging technological advances within traditional broadcasting itself.

The way in which the industry programs for the next era of television can be make-or-break. The industry needs to produce eye-popping HDTV pictures throughout their programming day. Broadcasters also need to look at the Internet (and its technologies) as a permanent, tethered extension of its broadcast operations.

Another facet of this broadcast challenge is to simplify consumer choices. When it is more difficult to make a TV purchase than configure and buy a desktop computer, the industry is in real trouble. Much like the Betamax vs. VHS war and the very recent Blu-Ray defeat of HD-DVD, the television has just under a year to greatly simplify the myriad of choices a consumer must make when buying their next-gen TV set.

What's better, 720p or 1080i? Once TVs are digital, the picture is automatically HDTV, right? What are the (dis)advantages of 4:3 compared to 16:9 aspect ratio? Couple these broadcast standards questions with the choice of plasma versus LCD versus DLP versus [insert latest display technology here] and you've got a big old mess. It's no wonder consumers are using alternate technology to get their content. They are hedging their bets. Not only is it more convenient and less expensive, it isn't a long-shot on the fickle future.

The industry needs to show leadership to its consumer base. Yet, it feels like TV stations are hiding from the looming analog shutdown date. Viewers are either left unaware or so confused they are reduced to a state of limbo. Broadcasters need to get out there and show their audiences the advantages of HDTV. They need to promote the heck out of this glorious impending era. Most of all, they need to tell the world that television is the best damn free "lean back" experience they can get…and with HDTV it's just getting better.

Sure, we are all being exposed to the fact that the cutting-edge "lean forward" media driven by the Internet can engage and entertain us too. But movie theaters, live performance venues and other "lean back" experiences survive.

Despite my iPod, CDs, and satellite audio, I still reach for the radio dial every time I get in the car. Why? We are wired for local radio to be part of the driving experience. Digging a bit further, what about radio makes this so? It isn't the music. I can get that elsewhere. It isn't necessarily the DJ or the traffic reports. I believe it's the fact that we have innate knowledge that other people in our same general affinity group are consuming the same content in real time. There is community in that.

Television needs to remind people that it too is community. Get viewers and consumers to feel like they are part of a common family room every time they watch TV and the power of the medium will be amplified. So, whether they are watching on a traditional television or viewing live on their cell phones, allow people to chat about live programming. This will provide them with a feeling of voice and empowerment. And, while people may enjoy discussing the latest plot twist in "Lost" on the web, I think it is far more engaging to use local news as a community rallying point.

This leads to a pivotal non-technology challenge for television broadcasters. Local stations need a local survival plan. It's likely that most of the next-gen technology issues will be worked out at the network or group ownership level, so what's a local station to do after they follow the cookie-cutter model of their owner?

Hyper localism is the key. Beyond a common background (usually location), a community needs information and gossip to survive. Today's local newscasts are designed incorrectly from the ground up to serve this purpose. Here is where most of the innovation must begin…

As recently as ten years ago, the local newscast served as a community's personalized view of the news. Known personalities (anchors and reporters) would greet appointment-based news viewers and disseminate news, ranging from international to local. It was the station's duty to serve the community in this way and they did a good job in doing so.

Unfortunately, the game changed. Viewers and consumers now have a choice about what, where and when. Instead of a station deciding on which 15 to 90-second "packages" of news we need to see, we can choose for ourselves. Further, we can not only decide on the content, but how "deep" we want to go into the content and where and when we want to consume our news. Therefore, traditional newscasts have lost much of their intrinsic value.

So, local news must change to meet the evolving desire of its community. Why would anyone want to watch international and national news in local news broadcasts when they can go to a myriad of Internet news sources to get the same thing?

Communities want to hear about themselves. They want to know what's important to them. So, if local news (and therefore local stations) are to survive in this new age of broadcast, they must become relevant to their communities again. Going hyper-local is paramount to this innovation and re-invention process.

Leaning forward is the future of communication. Make no mistake about it, people not only want to be entertained and informed, they want a channel for their own voice. As television comes to grips with this new paradigm, it must be nimble and willing to experiment. While those closest to the broadcast industry may lament the passing of the "good old days", they should be mindful that the very foundation of what made broadcasting great then will guide the industry back to greatness…just with a slightly different lean orientation.