ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
It took a decade of planning and tens of billions of dollars, but U.S. television stations finally made the move to digital broadcasting two months ago. In addition to a sharper picture and better sound, broadcasters touted all the new, free content that would be available on over-the-air TV. But as Joel Rose reports, the reality so far has fallen short.
JOEL ROSE: Because of the digital transition, TV stations can now offer four or more different channels, where before, they only had one. So if you're one of the 12 million or so Americans who only get their TV signals over the air, you've probably got some new options like this.
(Soundbite of television program)
Unidentified Man #1: Laugh at this.
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Just what the doctor ordered.
Unidentified Man #1: An all-day marathon.
Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) Thank you very much, Jack. Now, I need to take two more valium.
Unidentified Man #1: With movies this funny.
ROSE: THIStv is a syndicated network that mostly shows old MGM movies; many of which were forgotten for a reason. Some viewers can also get Retro TV, featuring reruns of "Knight Rider" and "Magnum P.I." Two of the major networks are offering their own national weather channels. But FCC commissioner Michael Copps says this is a far cry from what broadcasters could do with the new channels.
Mr. MICHAEL COPPS (Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission): If this spectrum is going to be used just for home shopping channels and Doppler radar scopes and all of that, then it is falling far short of the purpose that it could be serving. And it has the capacity to really represent local issues, local politics, local music, local religious and cultural diversity.
ROSE: It's also falling short of what broadcasters themselves promised. In the 1990s, they were eager to show Congress that they deserved to get their share of digital spectrum for free, just like they got their original analog spectrum free. So they promised a few things, like newscasts customized by neighborhood. Eli Noam teaches economics at Columbia University.
Professor ELI NOAM (Economics and Finance, Columbia University): Whenever a new media is starting, there is always the promise and the hope, really, of content that is local, that is education and what have you. And then kind of the reality sets in and the reality of kind of cold economic facts, and they kind of tend to change the equation.
ROSE: The cold economic facts are that broadcasters collectively spent $10 billion just switching over to digital TV. And content is expensive. Just one evening newscast can cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce. 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.
Mr. DENNIS WHARTON (Executive Vice President, National Association of Broadcasters): There is a disincentive for broadcasters spending a tremendous amount of money. And let's not kid ourselves, it costs a lot of money to make compelling programming, if 60 percent of viewers are going to be denied access through the cable wire.
ROSE: Denied access, says Wharton, because cable operators only carry one local channel per station. The FCC requires cable operators to carry local channels as part of their basic package. 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. But cable operators say they don't have room for the extra channels, especially for programming that doesn't exist yet. Brian Dietz is a spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.
Mr. BRIAN DIETZ (Spokesman, National Cable and Telecommunications Association): There's a definite capacity issue that cable operators are facing and don't have the unlimited ability to add broadcast channels that they don't even know what the content is.
ROSE: But 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 it isn't really new. One commercial broadcaster in California has found an innovative use for his extra airwaves.
(Soundbite of television program)
Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) (Speaking foreign language).
ROSE: 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. Cocola says he has other deals in the works.
Mr. GARY COCOLA (Owner, Cocola Broadcasting Companies): One of the things that I have found is that there are many local people within the community that have never had the ability to have their own television channel. I believe that's really where the ideas have come from.
ROSE: 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 Michael Copps would like to think so.
Mr. COPPS: Now that we'd put American consumers through all of this trauma of getting right with the technology and getting converter boxes and new antennas and all of that, I mean, that wasn't easy for anybody. We've got the digital TV. Now what are we going to do with it?
ROSE: For now, the answer seems to be lots of weather channels and reruns of "Knight Rider."
(Soundbite of television program, "Knight Rider")
Mr. DAVID HASSELHOFF (Actor): (As Michael Knight) It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.
ROSE: For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.
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