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Digital HD Has Arrived, Via Satellite

By | April 10, 2001

      For that sports bar you would like to own in Florida, or that Cinema Center you want installed in your California home, stand up and cheer for the TV technology of the future that’s now arriving across the nation. Delivered to broadcasters by satellite, of course.

      It’s the real thing, this digital high-definition television you have anticipated for years, with the 16×9 aspect ratio, a picture resolution of 1,080 lines and 1,920 pixels, multi-channel sound, perhaps even running boards and tailfins. These are the picture and sound qualities you have always dreamed would come from your television set.

      It all began in the late 1970s when inventive Japanese technologists were experimenting with analog-based high-resolution television pictures and sound in a project coordinated by NHK, Japan’s government-owned television broadcasting service. The Japanese envisioned an international rollout of their dramatic new TV technology.

      In February 1981, Joseph Flaherty of CBS–a U.S. technology leader who had encouraged the adoption of many TV improvements such as videotaping and electronic news gathering– arranged for an NHK demonstration at a meeting in San Francisco of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). It was an eye-opener.

      The United States Goes To Work

      In due course, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began encouraging private industry to develop alternatives to Japan’s new technology, which was known as MUSE. A blue-ribbon Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) was formed and work began on numerous fronts.

      After several years of research and development by private industry, there were 23 analog-based systems under review along with four digital contenders. Analog technology, including the impressive MUSE system, was soon dismissed for the future.

      The winning digital scheme had its origin at M/A-Com, a New England company that was acquired in 1986 by General Instrument Co. (GI). M/A-Com engineers, led by the young Woo H. Paik, successfully developed the compression technology needed by Home Box Office (HBO) and others to protect against thefts of satellite-relayed pay-TV programs. From their success with compression technology, Paik’s team was able to then design the first all-digital HDTV system, announced in 1990 as DigiCipher.

      Further tests and improvements, incorporating the best features of DigiCipher and the remaining three digital designs, led to the adoption in 1993 of the nation’s ATSC standard.

      Converting Broadcast TV To Digital

      In April 1997, the FCC announced a plan that requires TV broadcasters to fully transition from analog to digital by the year 2006.

      The government has “loaned” local broadcasters 6 MHz of valuable additional spectrum to develop their digital TV (DTV) services that will include standard-definition digital (SDTV) and high-definition digital (HD, or HDTV) capabilities.

      Richard E. Wiley, a partner in the Wiley, Rein & Fielding law firm and the FCC’s former chairman who headed the advanced TV project, said recently, “The opportunity to get the job done presents itself today as never before. It’s an opportunity that, in the public interest, should not be missed.”

      The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) reported in mid-February that 182 stations in 62 TV markets had completed the transition to digital. Currently, only the affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox in the 30 largest markets are required to be broadcasting in digital.

      Among the networks themselves, CBS has taken the lead by transmitting all network programs in digital format. According to a CBS spokesperson, “Analog stations broadcasting from our digital feed tend to deliver enhanced video to home TV sets.”

      Leading the conversion beyond DTV to deluxe high-definition production of all local news programs–calling for major capital expenses–have been stations WRAL-TV in Raleigh- Durham, NC, and KOMO-TV in Seattle-Tacoma, WA.

      Not all broadcasters, however, favor the selection of ATSC as the digital standard. Many would prefer Europe’s scheme, called DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting), and others want to know more about Japan’s digital system, called ISDB (Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting). Many broadcasters are also concerned about current confusion at the retail level where “HDTV-compatible” sets are sold to consumers.

      Busy, Busy Satellites

      ATSC is nevertheless up and running strong, and satellite transponders are proving again to be dependable delivery vehicles. The crucial compression technology that was developed in the late 1980s has enabled satellite carriers to accommodate digital content.

      Since 1975, communication satellites have had a giant role in the operations of the nation’s television networks and local broadcast stations, not to mention vital roles in the cable-TV and direct-to-home (DTH) businesses.

      To many consumers, however, this once-alluring product of the space world has become inscrutable, like paint drying or electricity existing. During the recent electrical power crisis in California, Los Angeles Times writer David Ferrell opined, “No commodity is more mysterious than electricity. Fleeting, invisible, it is bought and sold–and shipped in and out of state–over grids that few ever see or understand.”

      The satellite industry has its version of “grids” too; they’re called “transponders.”

      The Networks’ Needs

      During the period from 1965 to 1973, when the FCC’s lengthy considerations determined how satellite communications would be managed in the United States, the three major TV networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) formed a Joint Network Task Force (JNTF) that provided input to the FCC and prospective satellite operators about their needs.

      In 1971 the JNTF estimated that the three networks would have a collective need for 22 transponders, 11 full-time and 11 part-time. Thirty years later in 2001, the three original networks plus Fox are using 49 full-time transponders. Owing to digital compression technology, however, three or four and up to seven channels are currently being squeezed into single 36 MHz transponders.

      In addition, the total of 49 does not satisfy all the needs for part-time occasional-use transmissions for backhauls of remotely produced content. Even though terrestrial fiber transmissions now accommodate much of the point-to-point backhaul traffic, satellites continue to transport a large share of this traffic.

      In addition, all four of today’s major broadcast networks have ownership alliances with cable-TV program services, which together occupy another 32 full-time transponders. What the JNTF estimated in 1971 would require 22 transponders has now grown to 81, not counting the clusters of multi-channels enabled by compression technology.

      CBS Transponders

      CBS, according to Brent Stranathan, vice president of broadcast distribution for the Viacom-owned corporation, leases 12 full-time domestic satellite transponders, 10 in C-band and two in Ku-band, for content backhauls and news gathering plus the outbound around-the-clock distributions to 214 owned-or-affiliated local stations.

      All 12 of CBS’s transponders are leased from Loral Skynet, including three on Telstar 4 and nine on Telstar 6. Two of the Telstar 6 transponders are in Ku-band with 54 MHz.

      As with the other major networks, digital compression enables miracles for CBS. In a single 36 MHz C-band transponder, CBS multiplexes three standard-definition distribution channels in a single 45 Mbps carrier, freeing up valuable transponder capacity to also distribute HD, which streams out in a single 45 Mbps carrier on a 36 MHz transponder.

      In addition to DTV, CBS has begun distributing many sports and entertainment programs in HD. These include numerous prime-time programs originally filmed in 35 mm, along with special events produced in HD. In January there was the Super Bowl; in March, college basketball’s Final Four tournament; and in early April, the Masters golf tournament, a long- time emerald in the lineup of CBS Sports.

      For its cable program distributions of TNN and BET, CBS uses another four C-band transponders.

      ABC Transponders

      ABC, owned by the Walt Disney Company, leases 10 satellite transponders, of which seven are in C-band. The seven C’s and two 54 MHz Ku-band transponders–the latter for news gathering–are in Loral Skynet’s Telstar system. A third 54 MHz Ku- transponder is on General Electric’s GE-5.

      Like CBS, ABC loads 45 Mbps of HD throughput in a 36 MHz C-band transponder, according to Richard Wolf, vice president of telecommunications and distribution at ABC’s broadcast operations and engineering unit. Wolf points out that the “native” HD signal of 1.5 Gbps is compressed to 19.3 Mbps by the time it reaches the viewer at home.

      Planning for the future, Disney signed a major satellite contract last July with PanAmSat. PAS will become the “aggregate satellite-capacity vendor” to all of the TV distribution needs of Disney’s businesses. These include ABC plus the company’s cable interests in the Disney Channel, Toon Disney, ESPN and ESPN 2, which currently use nine C- band transponders.

      ABC’s current commitment with Loral Skynet extends until early 2006, at which time ABC will begin migrating its TV traffic into the PAS system.

      NBC Transponders

      Historically, General Electric-owned NBC has depended primarily on Ku-band satellite transponders, as opposed to C-band which has always been favored for distribution by the other three networks and, for that matter, the entire cable-TV programming colony.

      Currently, NBC has nineteen 36 MHz transponders, 18 of which are Ku–10 on GE’s K2 and eight on GE 1–and a single C-band transponder on GE 7. The network’s HD transmissions, like those of CBS and ABC, are at 45 Mbps in a 36 MHz transponder. The program which is most consistently produced in HD is “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.

      In the cable arena, CNBC and MSNBC use three C-band transponders for distribution.

      FOX Transponders

      Owned by News Corp., the Fox TV Network leases eight C-band satellite transponders. These are on Loral Skynet and PanAmSat satellites.

      For its cable-TV services, Fox has 16 additional transponders, many of which are on GE satellites. The large number is due primarily to the numerous regional sports services.

      Thirty Years Later

      Following the JNTF’s estimate of 30 years ago, it was another four years before domestic satellites came into use.

      Two 12-transponder satellites, Westar 1 and Westar 2, were launched in 1974 but TV traffic did not begin flowing until mid-1975. The first live TV program transmission, via Westar, was a baseball telecast on August 9, 1975, transported to KXAS-TV in Dallas-Fort Worth from Milwaukee’s County Stadium.

      The big three networks soon began booking news and sports backhauls to New York, but held off on converting total distribution to satellites until the mid-1980s.

      In the meantime, the FCC had awarded local broadcasting licenses to scores of new “independent” stations which had no network affiliations but soon had a ravenous hunger for news, sports and syndicated programs. It was a hunger that satellite technology proved to be highly capable of satisfying. Many of the earliest ad hoc network transmissions were of the hub-and-spoke variety, fed via satellite to existing earth stations, then land-lined beyond to additional markets.

      Eventually, many independent stations became owned by or affiliated with three new networks, Fox, WB and UPN. The Fox TV Network, for example, was formed around Metromedia’s major-market independents, which News Corp. acquired as a group.

      Beginning in late 1975 and 1976, the cable-TV industry became another major user of satellite program delivery. Local systems that were built initially as “community antennas” (hence the acronym CATV for community antenna television) were soon being fed by satellite with more program services than they could handle. Satellite delivery of program services became the spine that enabled many cable systems to become very valuable.

      The independent broadcast stations and local cable-TV systems, with giant amounts of satellite-fed alternative programming, caused reductions in the prime-time viewing shares for the three-networks’ stations from more than 90 to less than 60 percent.

      For the major networks’ stations, the ongoing transition to digital–and especially HDTV–is a mesmerizing move that may help them recapture former dominance.

      Robert N. Wold is based in California. His e-mail address is

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