The Sinclair VP of engineering kicks off TVNewsCheck’s new series of tech Q&As with the story of how the station group learned to stop worrying and came to love 8-VSB (well, almost).
When Del Parks says over-the-air digital TV is better than over-the-air analog TV, you can take it to the bank.
That’s not only because Parks is an accomplished and respected TV engineer. It also is because no company has been more critical and skeptical about the 8-VSB transmission scheme that underlies DTV than the TV broadcasting company for which Parks works, Sinclair Broadcast Group.
As Parks relates here in an interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Sinclair was so down on 8-VSB eight years ago that it tried to kill it and replace it with another transmission system. That effort failed.
But Parks now says that steady improvement in DTV receivers has brought DTV to the point where all you need is a set of rabbit ears—Sinclair’s goal all along. And Parks and his colleagues at Sinclair have joined an industry effort to develop a compatible VSB system that will allow TV stations to broadcast to cars zipping down the highway. Try that with analog.
This is Part I of a two-part interview with Parks that kicks off TVNewsCheck’s new Tech One on One series. In Part II next Thursday, Parks talks about the gradual introduction of digital into all the Sinclair stations.
An edited transcript follows.
As we speak, there are just 839 days until you are forced to make the permanent switch from analog to digital. Are you ready?
Yeah. Our strategy all along has been to roll out full-power DTV stations in every market we’re in. In no market are we low power. We’re maximized in every market and we have built out all of our TV stations.
So that expense and that work is all behind you now.
Except for one little market and that’s Fort Walton Beach, Florida, because the FCC has a freeze on. That’s neither here nor there.
So this 2009 deadline is not a big deal for you.
Well, it does mean a lot to us in a couple of different ways. We started this planning back in the early-to-mid ’90s and started execution in ’96 and it’s taken us this long just to build out the infrastructure. That’s a huge job. I mean it’s towers, it’s transmission lines, it’s antennas, it’s the big stuff. That just takes time. That phase of it is done.
In terms of our transition plan from analog to digital, we’re operating both systems now in all of our markets. Any network HD that comes down we pass through and in a lot of markets we are doing multicasting. In fact, I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but, in 1998, Sinclair was the first station to actually demonstrate a multicast.
I remember. And you took a lot of heat for it, too.
That was the wrong thing to do at that time.
We actually put on the air four digital channels in Baltimore to prove that it could be done. That started the multicast paradigm that landed us in front of Senator McCain, which wound up being kind of a fart in a wind storm.
It was a big deal then. It didn’t jibe with what the rest of the industry was telling Congress at the time—digital was for HD, not multicasting.
Well, I don’t think they understood the technology. I mean after all you had a bunch of lawyers and I don’t think anybody really understood what the technology could do. For better or worse, [Sinclair CEO] David [Smith] does understand technology. So I think that’s where we ended up. We now have multiple channels on in several markets.
Another place where Sinclair ran counter to the rest of the industry was in challenging the 8-VSB transmission scheme for digital a while back.
Six years ago to be exact.
But eventually you came around and said the system was OK, right?
What changed our minds back then was the realization that it wasn’t about what we thought, it was about the law and the law is 8-VSB. When there were only 15,000 sets out, we tried to change it to COFDM, which is a very robust signal that it also portable and mobile. We lost that fight and we recognize that we lost. We’re not crying over spilled milk.
But you have changed your mind on the technology, too, haven’t you?
Well, VSB is VSB. It is today what it was six years ago. What has changed is the receivers and the receivers’ ability to pick a signal out of the multipath. If you remember, our mantra back then was—and today still is—we want a system that can be received by simple antennas on top of TV sets so we can maintain our over-the-air ability. The initial VSB receivers were not as good as they are today. Today, they’re very good. The fifth-generation VSB receivers approach COFDM service in a fixed-receiver environment.
So if you’ve got a TV set on on your front porch and you want to watch a baseball game and you have a set of rabbit ears or a loop antenna and a later generation VSB receiver, you will pick up the signal pretty easily. So that’s the good news, but the signal itself hasn’t changed, it’s still the same signal.
Would you say that reception of today’s VSB is as good as your analog signal?
Oh, it’s better than the analog signal.
So, I’m going be able to get this signal everyplace I get the analog.
Yes and places where you can’t get analog. You’ve got to be careful here because people will say that analog is better behind this wall in my living room in that location. But, in general, with the latest generation receiver, reception is as good as or better then analog in a fixed-set environment.
What about mobile reception. Can I receive a signal as I walk down the sidewalk or in a football stadium?
There’s portability and mobility. Portability is when you can pick up the set and walk out to your deck and watch there. That’s portability. Mobility is when you put it in a vehicle and you start moving. I don’t believe that standard VSB is really capable of mobile reception. Maybe limited very small movement, but, in general VSB is not really as it stands today a mobile service. However, A-VSB or advanced VSB that we’re working on shows promise.
If you were at an NAB, you may have seen the Rohde & Schwarz and Samsung demonstration of A-VSB. They simulated reception using a receiver in moving car.
As I understand that system, you’re trading bits for the improved reception.
Is that a trade you’re willing to make? I guess it depends on what kind of business you want to be in.
Well, that’s exactly right. How valuable are the bits? I don’t think anybody really knows that answer yet. There are a couple components to A-VSB. One is a synchronizing signal that helps its ability to be received in a portable mode and it also enhances its ability to be used in a single frequency network. In addition, there’s a mode called turbo-code. Suffice it to say that A-VSB could provide the ability for true mobile reception.
I don’t know if there’s a business that could be built around that, but it would at least give broadcasters another option, correct?
That’s very true and anything that can enhance the value of the over-the-air signal is a good thing. It’s a feature broadcasters should have in their tool box.