Sinclair tries to change future of TV

It seeks to reverse digital choice of industry, government

Baltimore field tests

Company says pick could spell end of free reception for many

July 04, 1999|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Around noon on a hot and gusty day last week, a curious scene unfolded on Lombard Street across from the nursing school of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

A Pontiac Montana minivan -- dark red with gray trim -- was illegally parked in front of a fire hydrant, but the four men congregating near the rump of the vehicle seemed not to care.

Three of the men were peering into a small monitor and other electronic equipment that glared back from the minivan's open rear door. A fourth was standing on the sidewalk, fiddling with a strange-looking antenna that was taller than he was.

Students and smock-garbed medical personnel walked by, completely unaware that they were witnessing one company's bid to change the future of television.

That company is Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., which has grown from its Baltimore base to become one of the most influential television station owners in the country. Sinclair is trying to use its pull to persuade the industry and the federal government to reverse a decision that Sinclair says could spell the end of free TV reception for millions of Americans who do not have cable or satellite hookups.

If the decision stands, said Sinclair Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer David D. Smith, "those people who can't put outdoor antennas up will have no choice but to go to cable and pay or go to satellite and pay for TV. I don't believe the low-income sector of our population will stand for that."

While some in the broadcasting industry say there is merit to Sinclair's claims, others say the company is trying to advance its own narrow interests through scientifically suspect scaremongering.

Here is the issue:

For years, federal regulators and the private sector have been moving forward on plans to introduce digital television nationwide. Digital TV promises clearer pictures, better sound and more channels than the analog TV signals most people now receive.

In addition, digital TV could be used for an array of functions that are difficult or impossible to obtain with an analog set, such as high-speed Internet access and even telephone connections. The federal government, an ardent proponent of digital TV, has set an ambitious timetable: All broadcast channels are to be transmitted digitally by 2006.

However, switching the country from analog to digital TV is no easy task. Broadcasting a TV signal is an intricate undertaking, governed by a patchwork of technical standards designed to ensure that the signal is transmitted clearly to the televisions in a given market, but not so strongly that it interferes with signals in neighboring markets.

In 1995, after about a decade of research, testing and discussion, an advisory committee made up of industry leaders made its recommendations as to which standards should govern the transmission of digital TV signals in the United States. Those recommendations were embraced by the broadcasting industry and the federal government, and have guided the development of digital TV.

City dwellers affected

The problem, according to Sinclair, is that one of those standards makes it almost impossible for many people -- particularly city dwellers -- to receive over-the-air TV signals using a normal indoor antenna.

If retained, said Smith, this disputed standard, known in the industry as 8VSB, "will probably handicap or kill digital television in our country."

Smith says 8VSB is unable to deliver a TV picture consistently in areas where tall buildings and other impediments refract the signal, or in settings where mobile TV reception is needed.

The company insists that another standard, COFDM, is much better in such circumstances, and that the selection of COFDM over 8VSB in Europe and elsewhere reflects this superiority.

To prove its argument, Sinclair is running demonstrations comparing the reception quality of the two standards at locations in downtown Baltimore. The Lombard Street gathering was one such demonstration, with two Sinclair officials conducting tests of 8VSB and COFDM for a pair of representatives of another broadcasting company.

In the demonstrations last week, Sinclair played a digital broadcast of sports cars tooling around in some nameless countryside. This was Sinclair's 8VSB tape, and when the reception was good, it came in with the visual splendor that digital TV has always promised. The lines were crisp, the colors true.

High-rise demonstration

Trouble is, the reception on 8VSB was seldom good in these demonstrations. If the antenna was not placed perfectly, the signal died. In a demonstration at an Inner Harbor high-rise apartment building, the 8VSB signal would only come in if the antenna was lodged in one particular spot on a window sill. When the antenna was shifted even a few inches, the zooming convertibles gave way to a blank screen.

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