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I want my MTV

Last week I visited the National Association of Broadcasters trade show in Las Vegas. I spent most of my time checking out video editing equipment, but there was a definite buzz at the show about digital TV.

     The surprising thing is that it wasn't even about HDTV. HDTV was in evidence, in fact a demonstration station was broadcasting to the Las Vegas area, and yes the picture is stunning, but that's not where the money is.

     Broadcasters now have a decision to make. They can transmit 1 HDTV signal in their channel, or multiple standard channels or a mix of standard channels and data services. Which will they chose? I'd put my money on the latter option, since more channels mean more minutes of saleable commercial time, and data services mean premium pricing.

     I saw HDTV in two very different booths at the show. One was a 20 foot video wall, tucked into a darkened theater. Watching the screen was just like watching a movie. The compression artifacts were evident when I looked closely for them, but in general they were less noticeable than the crummy cable signal we are used to, or the ghosty signal we get off the air. When you saw the picture you knew you were seeing something very special.

     The other booth was more like a living room, it was smaller and near a window so some natural light was flooding in, The TV had about a 40" 16:9 tube. I walked right past it the first time without even noticing it (I'd seen tons of 16:9 TVs recently in Japan). The HDTV picture on that smaller set from the nominal (6x screen height) distance away looked very good, but in that environment not stunningly better. From very close up, (about the distance you're probably reading this from) the picture still looked quite good, about the same as a good computer graphics card.

     So here's the rub. As a consumer, if I had to chose between spending money on HDTV with one program per channel and a line doubled DTV with more programs per channel, I'd probably choose the latter.

     Think of the possibilities for multicasting. PBS could offer several tracks of programming, one full time children's channel, one nature channel, multiple classical music audio channels (ALL OPERA! ALL THE TIME!) and of course, classroom education channels. They could even run commercials on some of those channels.

     Commercial stations have a tougher time of it, I suspect they may stick to a couple of network video feeds, a looping local news feed, and fill the rest of the channel with radio and data.

     I miss MTV. There's still a channel called MTV that comes across cable, but it's not at all like MTV. It's full of programming. Sigh. In a race for the lowest common denominator, MTV has pushed music off the air and replaced it with game shows and specials. With DTV, MTV could go back to running videos on a couple of channels. They could even have a channel strictly for videos without swearing and violence. I'd watch that.

     With all these new channels I hope we don't end up with 90% long form commercials, which is what my cable seems to be so often lately. I'm not sure where we're going to find all the programming to fill even half of this growing vast waste land, but I have an idea....

Joseph Palmer lives in Silicon Valley, and watches altogether too much television.

Copyright © 1997 Joseph Palmer. All rights reserved.

Comments or Ideas? Mail me at jpalmer@josephpalmer.com.

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