Promises Unkept: Disappointments In Digital TV

Old television

hide captionBroadcasters promised the digital switchover would be accompanied by additional programming options, but so far, the new programs haven't materialized.

gothopotam; flickr/Creative Commons

The digital transition now allows TV stations to offer four or more different channels instead of just one. So if you're one of the 12 million or so Americans who only gets TV signals over the air, you may find yourself with some new options, including THIStv, a syndicated network that mostly shows old MGM movies; and Retro TV, which features reruns of Knight Rider and Magnum P.I. Two of the major networks are offering their own national weather channels. But Michael Copps of the Federal Communications Commission says the offerings are a far cry from what broadcasters could be doing with the new channels.

"If this spectrum is going to be used just for home shopping and Doppler radar, it's falling far short of the purpose that it could be serving," Copps says. "It has the capacity to represent local issues, local politics, local music, local religious and cultural diversity."

Promises Unkept

In the 1990s, broadcasters were eager to show Congress that they deserved to get their share of the digital spectrum for free — just like they got their original analog spectrum for free. So they promised a few things, like newscasts customized by neighborhood.

"Whenever a new media is starting, there's always the promise — the hope, really — of content that is local. ... And then reality sets in — cold economic facts — and they tend to change the equation," says Eli Noam, who teaches economics at Columbia University.

The cold economic facts are that broadcasters collectively spent $10 billion just switching over to digital TV. And content is expensive: Producing just one evening newscast can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Add to the financial pain the fact that local TV stations don't have as many viewers as they used to, and more than half of the viewers they do have are watching on cable. So they're not even seeing the new over-the-air channels, says Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters.

"Let's not kid ourselves. It costs money" to provide the channels, Wharton says. He adds that broadcasters may be disinclined to spend a tremendous amount of money on additional channels, since cable operators only carry one local channel per station. This means that 60 percent of viewers wouldn't have access to the extra channels.

The FCC requires cable operators to carry local channels as part of their basic package, but for years, broadcasters have been pushing to expand the so-called must-carry rule to cover their other digital channels before they invest millions of dollars in new content. Now cable operators say they don't have room for the extra channels, especially for programming that doesn't exist yet.

"There's a definite capacity issue that cable operators are facing," says Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. "And [they] don't have the unlimited ability to add channels that they don't even know what the content is."

Some New Services

Some stations are creating new services with no promise of cable carriage. Public television stations across the country have added additional channels devoted to educational and arts programming — although most of that programming isn't really new.

One commercial broadcaster in California has found an innovative use for his extra airwaves. Gary Cocola owns about 30 low- and full-power TV stations in California and Idaho. He's decided to rent airtime on his new digital channels for $5,000 a month. So far, he's had one taker: the Vietnamese Broadcasting Service, based in Southern California.

"One of the things that I've found is that there are many local people within the community that have never had the ability to have their own TV channel. I believe that's really where the ideas have come from," Cocola says, adding that he has other deals in the works.

In a way, Cocola's business model looks back to a time when radio stations leased their least-profitable airtime to superlocal broadcasters, who in turn sold their own ads to pay for it. Could it also be a sign of things to come on digital TV? FCC commissioner Copps would like to think so.

"Now that we put American consumers through this trauma of getting right with the technology and the converter boxes and the antennas — that wasn't easy for anybody — we've got the digital TV," Copps says. "Now what are we going to do with it?"

For now, the answer seems to be lots of weather channels and reruns of Knight Rider.

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