, October 30, 1998 — Imagine sitting in your living room, watching game six of the World Series on television, and being able to “interact” with the game. You click on your favorite player to learn his batting average against the pitcher he’s facing as he comes up to bat. You change cameras to get a close-up of the ball as he hits a high fly into left field, and then you tap a button to see the replay. You click on your screen to order a commemorative picture after your favorite player hits the game-winning home run. All this while your TV produces crystal clear pictures and CD-quality sound.
This vision of digital television will move a step closer to reality on Sunday, November 1, when more than 40 television stations in the nation’s 10 largest cities begin transmitting digital television signals. The move is one of the first concrete steps in a decade-long process to convert television signals in the U.S. from analog to digital. The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that television stations complete the conversion to digital broadcasting by 2006. That year the analog spectrum may be turned off if the digital market has developed sufficiently and most U.S. households have replaced their analog TVs with digital television sets, or acquired some other technology (like a set top converter box) enabling them to receive and translate digital signals into analog.
The digital signals TV stations will begin broadcasting on Sunday won’t be noticeable to most viewers. First, most television stations have yet to produce digital television programs, and most consumers have yet to purchase the still expensive and rare high-definition television sets (HDTVs). In addition, digital signals will not be available to approximately three-quarters of American TV viewers who get their television via cable or satellite systems.
The vast majority of the 100 million U.S. households who have analog TV sets will continue to watch TV as they always have, without any interruption to their programming. Viewers who own an HDTV will experience better quality audio and video, but only while watching the limited number of programs designed for digital TV. They won’t be able to experience interactive programs on this first wave of digital receivers until a later date, when the technology and content for these programs are developed.
Still, the move marks an important step forward for digital television. As television enters the digital age, images and sound will no longer be transmitted as electronic waves but instead as numbers, essentially speaking the same language as computers or CD players and other digital devices. This opens up tremendous opportunities for consumers, who will be able to experience high-quality video and sound as well as a whole new level of entertainment and information.
Microsoft, along with other leaders in the computer, broadcast, cable, satellite and computer electronics industries, is working to develop the technology and standards that will enable this new era of TV. The company wants to help make sure that the DTV experience is a universal one, available to all television viewers as quickly and affordably as possible, by developing the software for digital set-top boxes, televisions and PCs as television enters the digital arena. Microsoft currently offers Web TV, a system that allows people to access the Internet on their televisions and integrate the content of both to complement the shows they watch with associated entertainment, information and services.
Microsoft is also working with a broad range of leaders from multiple industries to set the standards for interactive digital television so that people can view interactive television programming no matter what type of receiver they own or how the broadcast is transmitted — whether by antenna, cable or satellite. Microsoft is a member of the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF), a cross-industry group formed to define standard protocols for television programs enhanced with data. Microsoft is also working with a wide variety of companies to promote interactive television products and services and to speed up the adoption of digital television.
“Digital television is all about enabling the last 50 years of broadcast material, 25 years worth of cable, 15 years worth of PC and five years worth of Internet content to be available on the television,” said Steve Guggenheimer, group product manager for digital television at Microsoft. “It requires a lot of cooperation across industries, some new standards, and an architecture that will make it very seamless for consumers to get access to all types of content as a natural and logical extension of their television.”
While the changes are just starting to happen, they will eventually alter television as we know it. Digital television will open up new business opportunities for advertisers by making it easier for them to target customers. For example, because the Internet can store a person’s zip code, viewers could easily access their town’s local movie listings while watching a nationally televised commercial for a new movie. Digital television will also create new business opportunities for broadcasters. For instance, broadcasters could charge a fee for premium services such as the ability to participate in an interactive game show or to control the camera used to view a sporting event.
Most important, digital television will open up a wide range of opportunities for consumers. Viewers will be able to use their TVs to watch interactive television programs, send and receive e-mail and access the Internet. They will even be able to hold videoconferences over their TVs and watch movies on demand.
“By definition, television is very much a push medium,” Guggenheimer said. “We push programming content out to viewers. The Internet is very much a pull medium. We go out and we pull what we want off of it. When the two worlds come together, you get a whole new world of interactivity. You can be all push, all pull, or some marriage of the two.”
But do television viewers really want to interact with their TVs? Aren’t they happy simply being couch potatoes? Not necessarily, Guggenheimer said. The remote control is an interactive device, he points out, and a popular one at that. It will take time for the market to determine how, and how much, people want to interact with their TVs. Ultimately, people will have a choice.
“You can turn interactivity on or turn it off,” Guggenheimer said. “But having interaction as an option makes sense because there are some people who will want to interact. If you look at people today who play games on their TV, browse the Internet on their TV and listen to music, people, especially younger people, like to do more than one thing at once.”
Meredith Davis, a Web TV user in Long Island, N.Y., said she believes interactive television will appeal to those who can’t afford a computer as well as customers who are intimidated by PCs-particularly older people. The mother of two children, Davis said owning a Web TV unit has made her an “Internet expert.”
“I can tell you that in the two years I’ve owned it, I’ve used it every day,” Davis said. “I use e-mail a lot, I like the news groups, I like to visit the different sites. I use it for just about everything. It’s so easy to use for a first-time user.”
Although the underlying technologies within computers and televisions are likely to converge eventually, Guggenheimer predicted that consumers will continue to use a range of viewing devices, depending on their preferences and needs. “If I’m in the living room and want to sit on the couch and be 10 feet away from the device, it’s very likely I’m going to use a television, which has a bigger screen and is meant to be viewed from farther away,” he said. “But if I’m going to be in my office, it’s likely I’m going to be using the PC because I’m going to be sitting two feet away from it. We believe there will continue to be a variety of devices, and different devices will be optimum for different places.”
KCTS, a public television station in Seattle, is among the first television stations in the U.S. to develop digital television programs. The TV station’s digital arm, Intris, has created more than 15 high-definition television programs for distribution in the U.S. It aired its first interactive television show in September, and has an agreement with Microsoft to make Web TV units available to KCTS viewers to expand viewers’ ability to watch interactive TV programs.
Although KCTS is not among the top 10 markets that must begin the conversion to digital TV this year, it has already developed a test signal and will begin transmitting a fully operational digital signal next April, said Barry Martin, director of brand development for Intris. KCTS is developing programs for both the television and the computer, and will improve its programs to match the state of digital technology. “We’re agnostic as to what device people want to receive it on,” he said. “If it’s a digital device, we want to send a signal to it.”
Martin said KCTS’ decision to jump into the digital television market early in the game was a natural extension of the station’s mission to develop high-quality programming that will benefit its viewers. Digital television opens up a variety of opportunities, including better educational programming for schools and colleges. Martin predicted viewers will want to take advantage of opportunities such as these, no matter what device they use.
“You still get a lot of naysayers, who say people don’t want to watch TV on their computer,” he said. “But what they don’t get is that in the digital universe, there’s no such thing as a computer versus a television set. It’s a monitor, and all that’s happening is that you will have a box with more or fewer capabilities.”
While true digital television is still a ways off, Guggenheimer said consumers have several options they can try over the next year. They can purchase an HDTV to begin capturing higher-quality video and audio signals that begin on November 1, they can take advantage of the additional channels that cable and satellite television providers are starting to offer, and they can experience the Internet and interactive programming with a Web TV. “You can mix and match all of these things, but it’s not very easy to integrate them yet,” he said. “Over time, what will happen is that the technologies from the different boxes will come together.”
It may be 5-10 years before consumers can experience the full benefits of digital television, Guggenheimer said. In the meantime, they should view digital television as an evolutionary process.
“It’s not like we throw the switch on November 1,” Guggenheimer said. “Having the broadcasters move to digital broadcasting is an important step, but in the long term it’s going to require the integration of digital broadcast with digital cable, digital satellite, the advanced set top box and new digital TV sets. This is just one piece of the puzzle.”