After hearing pitch from Microsoft, public TV keeps options open on HDTV format

Originally published in Current, April 6, 1998

By Steve Behrens

KCTS signs pact with Microsoft's Web TV

Originally published in Current, May 4, 1998

Seattle's KCTS and its new for-profit DTV-services subsidiary Intris will promote and sell Microsoft's Web TV receivers as a "bridge" to digital TV, the station announced last month at the National Association of Broadcasters convention.

And when the station signs on its DTV transmitter early in 1999, it will use the computer-friendly progressive-scan format--first at 480 scanning lines and later at 720--that Microsoft is urging broadcasters to use.

This is especially notable because KCTS has been a pioneer in high-def production, using picture formats with more than 1,000 lines.

"It's been an interesting journey for me," says President Burnie Clark. "We saw that manufacturers of broadcast receivers were going to be slow off the mark," he explains. If anyone was going to buy DTV receivers during the initial period, it would be computer users who will be able to receive DTV with tuner cards inserted into PCs. But he still argues for capturing images in the top 1080-line format.

The station wants to profit from its long experience with HDTV and DTV. Intris will also offer packages of planning services that will help other TV stations shift to DTV without require each to "reinvent the wheel," Clark said.

KCTS will announce its specific plans for Web TV within a month or two, according to Clark, but as part of the project, it will produce enhanced material similar to web pages to supplement its programming for Web TV viewers. Microsoft backed KCTS experiments with Web TV formating for the pilot of the station's Sci Squad series.

"To me, it's a bridge--an opportunity to take the analog program and the Internet and bridge them," said Clark.

He said a non-disclosure deal prevents him from discussing what Web TV is giving to KCTS as part of the longterm pact.

KCTS initially saw Web TV as a good, inexpensive way to demonstrate interactive TV to the public, and was doubly impressed when Microsoft bought the company, says Barry Martin, director of brand development for Intris.

A version of Web TV will also be available on many new computers. The software comes as part of Windows 98, which debuts in June; it also requires a TV tuner card in the PC. Microsoft says it's "incenting" PC makers to include tuner cards; the New York Times reported that it's giving discounts on Windows 98 that cover much of the cost of a card.

Intris also announced a new web site with DTV info for broadcasters and viewers. Its address:

Pubcasting declined to take sides this month in the tug-of-war between the computer industry and the TV set manufacturers over the picture format for high-definition DTV. Public TV station execs--gathered in Arlington, Va., March 24-25--heard a strong pitch on the issue from Microsoft Corp. and a contrasting view from a General Instruments executive.

Microsoft led the computer industry campaign in 1996 that persuaded the FCC to drop specific formats from the official DTV standard, and since then has been pushing broadcasters not to use the highest HDTV format because it's interlaced and not compatible with PCs.

Pubcasting's Digital Broadcasting Strategic Planning Steering Committee, including CPB, PBS, APTS and NPR, released a noncommital response April 2:

"With the public interest top of mind, we have to weigh the trade-offs among the various potential transmission standards for digital broadcasting--and get some experience with how consumers receive them--before deciding which are most appropriate for the specific services we will provide," the statement said, in part. "Public broadcasting is keeping its options open," explained APTS Vice President Marilyn Mohrmann-Gillis.

The debate focuses on several of the 18 formats proposed to the FCC in the Grand Alliance DTV standard:

1080i: The top standard of 1080 lines, with 1920 pixels across the screen. The picture will be painted by 60 interlaced frames a second, each including only every other line, like present-day TV. Uses most of a DTV channel.

720p: Microsoft's favored option, with 1280 pixels across, painted with 60 complete progressive-scan frames a second, like a computer image. Two could be aired at once on a channel.

480p: A "standard-definition," progressive-scan option that would still yield better pictures than today's. Four or more could be aired at once.

While a DTV set from a consumer electronics manufacturer will be able to receive all of these and 15 other formats in the industry standard, computer makers at first won't be able to handle the huge bitstream of the higher formats, especially 1080i.

PC v. TV: very different industries

What we're seeing is a "clash of business models" between the two industries, explained Robert Rast, a General Instruments executive who led GI's development of digital transmission. Rast was present as an expert resource for the National Forum for Public Television Executives.

He explained that the consumer electronics industry makes TV sets for consumers who will keep them for a long time and expect them to continue working, while the computer industry wants to push technology so that users will buy new PCs every few years. (The computer folks want to "make $1,000 every three years rather than $3,000 every 15 years," APTS President David Brugger later summarized.)

TV makers put expensive monitors in their sets to handle the most detailed video that may be transmitted, while the computer industry aims to add DTV as a feature at a very low additional cost and gradually improve picture quality as technology advances.

In two presentations to public TV managers, Microsoft Group Product Manager Tom Gershaw argued that the 720p picture is nearly indistinguishable from 1080i and would use so much less capacity that a DTV station would have extra room for more new, interactive services.

He and WGBH demonstrated several prototype services that seemed to place the video picture in a web page--offering clickable icons for data on athletes with a sports broadcast, or downloads of an educational game that goes with WGBH's remake of Zoom.

If broadcasters go with 1080i, the signals will go unseen on computers equipped for HDTV, Gershaw warned, and receivers will need more expensive picture tubes. "You're forcing us to put a price increase in every TV set and every computer," he said. His company is giving incentives to PC makers to include DTV circuitry, which will cost just $200 or $300 extra, he contended.

Burnie Clark of Seattle's KCTS said in an interview that he likes accelerating the DTV rollout with cheap computer add-ons, and the more extensive data-based services that could be offered along with the 720p format, which occupies less of the bitstream. (For production, Clark still prefers 1080i, however.)

When Microsoft asked the Digital Steering Committee for a chance to speak to pubcasters, Clark arranged the presentation, according to Brugger.

Dennis Haarsager of KWSU, Pullman, Wash., told colleagues he's worried about committing public TV's entire bitstream to a single 1080i high-def program.

Rast replied that even a 1080i picture will leave an excess bitstream of 2.5 megabits per second that stations can use or lease out (and twice that, under one new compression scheme). He advised public TV to protect its ability to do the highest-quality HDTV "down the road," in case the market goes that way. He noted that cable systems will have the ready capacity to meet that standard.



To Current's home page

Related story: At Forum and in APTS meetings, pubcasters consider several aspects of DTV, March 1998.

Current Briefing on public TV and the digital transition.

Outside link: Web site of KCTS's subsidiary, Intris.



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