As you read this, we're just a bit more than a year away from the end of analog over the air (OTA) terrestrial television broadcasting in the United States. The transition has been a long one, and certainly an important one, as it not only brings with it the transmission of high-definition programming with multichannel Dolby Digital soundtracks, the shut off at midnight, local time, on February 17, 2009, means that when you turn on a television on the morning of the 18th you had better have a digital tuner or else you can forget about over-the-air (OTA) reception.
Yes, we know that, for the most part, the commercial, industrial, educational, and institutional venues that are installed and maintained by SCN readers rely on either satellite or cable for the vast majority of program reception. However, it is also true that in some cases you still rely on OTA for local programming. Thus, please consider this month's column as the first of what will probably be a number of pieces on this subject as the clock ticks down to the shut off.
In particular, our concern this month is for those of you who design, install, or maintain multi-display public entertainment venues, particularly sports bars and the like. It's all well and good to say that cable or satellite bring in the subscription network programming for both everyday viewers and those who come in for "The Big Game", but when that game, match or race is on one of the broadcast networks you do need local signal access. Cable or satellite can provide that, and normally does. But, as it were, there is a "but" here.
The "but" was brought home, almost literally, late last year during the devastating wildfires that broke out across Southern California. As is their wont, particularly in highly competitive markets such as Los Angeles and San Diego, most of the network and independent stations pre-empted normal programming and went "wall to wall" with day-long coverage. Some would say that is as it should be, but if you are a NASCAR fan in the Los Angeles area, but unaffected by the fires, you would have been more than a bit upset to see the local broadcast of a key race dropped in favor of fire coverage. If you were the proprietor of an establishment where people gathered to watch the event, you would have clearly been annoyed as well.
Before you say "there's nothing I can do", think again. As it turned out, the local station broadcasting the event did drop the race, but only from their main HD broadcast channel. Taking advantage of the multi-cast capability of digital broadcasting, they kept the fire coverage on their main HD channel "7.1" and continued the NASCAR broadcast, albeit in SD, on their channel "7.3". If that was your installation, and you didn't install a proper terrestrial antenna and a either run the coax to some of the sets, or put an OTA tuner in the equipment racks, everyone would have been annoyed. If you did remember that "old fashioned antenna", the day would be saved and you'd have been a champ!
It's worth noting that in the case of the California fires, the value of OTA reception so that multicast channels are available in the venue also went the other way. Another channel decided to stick with their normal broadcasting on their main HD "4.1" channel, but since their crews and news vans were out in the field anyway, they simply put the fire coverage connection on their "News Raw" channel 4.4. That way, anyone who wanted to see the latest fire news could access at any time.
Take this one step further. These "hidden" digital multicast channels deserve not to be hidden, but seriously considered as something you need to plan for inclusion regardless of whether the distribution system is matrix switched to individual monitors, direct to each display from a discrete tuner or set-top, or if the signals from a rack full of tuners are combined into a full RF or video distribution system. While not every channel has them, many do. For example, in every market there is bound to be at least one station, and perhaps more, that has some form of weather service on a multicast channel, be it a simple display of the local radar, or a more comprehensive service from Weather+ or Accuweather with local conditions and forecasts also appearing on the screen. Some of the channels are used for live traffic cams, some for additional program channels or news, some for still more shopping channels, and yet others for additional cultural, educational, or religious channels. (Here in Los Angeles, for example, one of the multicast channels has what may well be the country's only full time channel in Armenian, along with numerous and specialized Spanish language programming not available on the main channels.)
- By now we'll take the leap of faith that you're sold on the concept of making multicast channels from OTA digital broadcasts available to some extent in your various installations. Now the question turns to how to do this.
- If you're using direct-feed RF as an option to each display, and they have built-in ATSC tuners, all you need to do is make certain that the antenna is pointed in the right direction and that the signal is strong enough. Change the channels, and the multi-cast programming is there as you or the proprietor flips through the channels.
- If tuners aren't built in, or if the system's signal distribution architecture does not allow for individual RF feeds, it comes down to the antenna being connected to an external ATSC tuner box. There are certainly such devices on the market, ranging from sophisticated models designed for broadcast monitoring to more traditional consumer products at the lower end of the scale. In addition, some (but not all) HD satellite set-tops have integrated ATSC tuners. If the application calls for (or allows, legally and otherwise) for time shifting, the TiVo Series 3 HD DVRs have off-air tuners, as will similar products due to appear this year from Digeo/Moxi.
- With the FCC's "Tuner Mandate" now in place for many months, DVD recorders with off-air tuners are also available in the consumer marketplace, and even if you don't take advantage of the optical drive, there is no reason why these products cannot also serve as an off-air tuner. While they won't have sophisticated control capabilities, their consumer-friendly IR remote controls should be easy to integrate into any programming or control system. Note, however, that the output of these boxes will typically be SD only, so you may want to consider them only for use where HD display is not required, leaving the "main channel" reception to another device or the cable and satellite receivers.
- A new and additional solution for off-air ATSC reception will come into the consumer market within the next few months, and that will be the "Coupon Eligible Convertor Boxes" (CECBs), that are meant to provide off-air reception of digital broadcasts for those who are not able to afford to replace an existing analog television receiver with a new digital one. The "Coupon Eligible" part of the product category name comes from the fact that these devices are a key part of the government's program that gives every household in the nation an opportunity to receiver two $40 coupons good towards the purchase of one of these devices. Again, the goal is not to provide off-air TV for entertainment venues, but rather to make certain that no one is disenfranchised as a result of the analog shut-off in 2009.
- Businesses cannot apply for the coupons; that is something that you have been able to do as an individual since New Year's Day. Anyone, however, can purchase the boxes, which are expected to retail in the $50 to $80 range. These are basic products with no frills. Only RF, composite video and left/right analog audio outputs are permitted, and remember that the output is 480i, not HD. A remote may (and likely will) be included, along with the ability to tune channels 2 through 69 only, display all DTV formats, show the PSIP, or program information data, and options to support video output in 4:3 "center cut" of 16:9 images, letterbox 16:9 or partially zoomed images. Analog RF pass through and a "Smart Antenna" input are optional.
- What won't these boxes do? To keep costs down so that they are "eligible", there cannot be any digital audio or digital video outputs, and no component or S-Video analog outputs. They're not fancy, but they are inexpensive.
- This is only one part of the list of things you'll have to deal with as 2-17-09 moves closer. While most of the media focus on the digital transition has correctly been on the residential and consumer side of things, as the great "analog shut-down party" approaches over the next twelve months, we'll use this space to keep you posted about the things that you need to do on the commercial and systems side of the world.
- Be sure to consider including multicast channels in a program distribution system or multi-monitor venue. Those channels are 4:3 and SD most of the time anyway, so a tuner with analog audio/video outputs should be just fine. The task is to know that there is more than just the obvious broadcast and subscription/pay program services out there, and that these new multicast channels should have a place in your systems. Yes, you can do the job with expensive tuners and products, and in some cases that is the proper order of the day. However, thanks to the existence of the Coupon Eligible Convertor Boxes (CECB) program, less expensive, basic options will also be available.
For information about the Converter Box Coupon Program, including fact sheets for both consumers and retailers who wish to become qualified to accept the coupons, along with links to the complete text of 47 CFR Part 301, which sets down the "Final Rule" for the program, visit www.ntiadtv.gov.
For additional information, including links to data about the Program and the DT transition in general, visit the Consumer Electronics Retailer Coalition at www.ceretailers.org
While most businesses that plan to accept the Convertor Box Coupons will be consumer oriented, if you think your business has the retail traffic that warrants accepting the Coupons, the first step is to complete the Central Contractor Registration process needed before you apply for actual participation. To do that, go to www.ccr.gov. Registration to be qualified to accept the Coupons must be completed by March 31, 2008.