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Weekly Column

What's Wrong With Being Entertained?: I Want My Digital TV

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

This was the week I became Mr. Digital TV. Just in case you missed it or live far beyond the PBS frontier, this is Digital Week for PBS, and I am the "host." Monday night, we did the network's first official digital broadcast, enjoyed by literally dozens and dozens of people in six cities. My part of the event was doing the general introduction, and then a 30-minute show that attempted to explain digital television without putting the audience to sleep. The show was fun to make, fun to watch, and I think the main points (digital, HDTV, multicasting, and enhanced TV) came through more or less clearly.

Literally, the high point of filming was an opening shot we did atop the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. This moment of lunacy was my idea. We shot 500 feet above the traffic and 770 feet above the water, with both the bridge and the city of San Francisco in the background of our beautiful high definition television picture. What you couldn't see was the late afternoon shadow that forced me to do the shot from OUTSIDE the safety rail. First, they asked me to step over the rail, then to lean back to get better light. Then they asked me to do it all again, but "look happy." The director, a charming lady the size of a sparrow, hung onto my leg through the railing. We got the shot.

For all this death defiance and dedication to the craft of television, some people didn't like the show. The nerd contingent found it horribly devoid of technical specifics, as though every show ought to be aimed solely at their interest level. Do they make the same complaints about "The Simpsons?" And some nerds went further to say not only that they were bored, but that they thought I had sold my soul. Here's a sample message:

"I caught the first few minutes of the PBS special you hosted on digital TV, and was pretty disappointed. Now I know that PBS is a booster of digital TV, given their plans to broadcast in the format, but *you*? You're someone who's been outspoken against various computer and tech industry boondoggles, and I'd call a new service that offers little that's new or improved, while costing the consumer thousands of dollars for new sets and receivers, a boondoggle."

"C'mon — I wanted to hear you slam the hucksterism involved with HDTV in its present form — not a soft-shoe song and dance number."

Not only does this type of message make me feel misunderstood, it makes me feel like the whole digital TV concept is misunderstood by the very people who ought to love it. So it's time to set the record straight about DTV.

1) Digital TV is coming. This is not optional. The FCC has decided that the TV world will go digital and analog TV will go dark in 2006. To fight against this trend is possible, but only by deciding to stop broadcasting. This makes no sense for anyone since it is broadcast TV, not cable or satellite, that reaches the lowest and most needysocioeconomic groups. If "Sesame Street" is going to get the job done, that job has to be done through the air.

2) The FCC isn't going to change its mind about this, nor should we want them to. They plan to auction those analog frequencies for big bucks from taxi dispatchers or cellphone providers or some other non-TV application. These big bucks have already been factored into balancing the Federal budget.

3) We should like this, because we are computer users — digital people — and digital is good. Replacing 200 million TVs with digital boxes over the next 10 years will only improve the quality of computer graphics adapters and lower the cost of computer systems as even greater economies of scale kick in. At the same time, the commonality between PCs and DTVs will make televisions follow the PC price curve.

4) "Yeah, but what about that price? These TVs are EXPENSIVE." Then don't buy one. But Moore's Law tells us that five years from now, the cost of a digital set and an analog set with the same size screen will be comparable. THAT'S WHY THE OLD SYSTEM STAYS ON FOR EIGHT MORE YEARS. Even then there will be adapter boxes to use your old analog set on the digital system, and eight years from now those adapter boxes will be the cost of cable boxes today.

5) "But it costs a lot to change the networks and local stations to digital." Does it? Running a TV station is expensive no matter what technology you use. I have been told by station engineers that while the cost of going digital is high, the cost of maintaining aging analog equipment is high, too. Sometimes it's a wash.

6) Digital TV will bring new types of data services, especially Internet services. With Ethernet speeds available, maybe we can move most real-time streaming data applications off the web and onto DTV. It's like teletext with at least 2000 times the bandwidth, which opens exciting possibilities.

7) This is good for America. We lost the color TV business years ago to Japan and Korea, but DTV is mainly U.S. technology.

8) It's the picture, stupid. I want my HDTV, and if you spend much time watching one of these sets, you'll want it, too. The quality of an HD picture can't be described.

Yes, but am I a huckster? No, I'm a ham. I LIKE making shows my Mom can understand. I liked cooking with Julia Child and singing songs with Mr. Rogers. I like making programs that are entertaining as well as informative. This is, after all, an entertainment medium, something these cranky old nerds seem to have forgotten. I am beginning to think they just like to complain.

One thing I especially like about DTV is that it is a new market that will generate new market leaders. Microsoft and Intel are early players, but they don't control anything. The business will evolve and I can guarantee that five years from now at least one of the major players will be a company that hasn't yet been founded.

Change is good. Especially if it gets me my HDTV.

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