Around the first of the year, a friend wrote to ask what our plans were for using our HD channels (among other things, I manage two PBS stations in eastern Washington). His station and our full-service station are using the PBS HD feed exclusively. I hadn't really thought about it much, but his question coincided with my own acquisition of a new 5th-gen. ATSC set-top box, one that could actually receive most of the Spokane stations at my home some 55 miles away, so this prompted me to reconsider my assumptions about HD.
The PBS HD feed is a packaged feed that provides a high-quality 7x24 program service that either has true HD or upconverted analog programs. Stations that air the HD feed exclusively are airing identical programs localized only (usually) by a bug and station IDs. Most stations are airing it on their digital dot-1 channel and are airing an SD version of their analog channel on dot-2, but there are variations.
Meanwhile, commercial practice is to simulcast their analog channel on dot-1, the digital version being HD when available and upconverted analog programs when it's not. While not true HD, these upconverted programs look darn good in contrast to SD. And this better looking (assuming you're viewing on an appropriate set) clone of their analog channel is run on their dot-1 channel position. Some commercial stations in our market are running an additional SD channel (full-time weather or music videos), some aren't.
The HD feed was a great strategy for gaining HD digital cable carriage, but it's a non-starter for gaining HD satellite carriage. It's just not reasonable to think that satellite providers are going to dedicate the bits necessary for dozens of our local-into-local HD services that are differentiated only by a bug and station ID.
More importantly, it's not a great strategy for retaining over-the-air viewers (an over-the-air viewer is economically worth several times more to a station than DBS or cable viewers). Viewers form habits. If programs are lined up differently on the PBS station versus the way they are lined up on several commercial stations, guess which way seems right to them. And if what looks to them to be the main channel because it's HD has only light local branding, no underwriting and -- forgive me -- no pledge drives, then we're not going to compensate for that with the inferior quality of our fully-localized SD simulcast of analog up on dot-2. It's also confusing to viewers to having similar programs running at similar times -- the most extreme case was finding two different versions of Frontline running in the same primetime slot a few weeks ago.
It's important to note that this strategy likely brings extra hardware and operating expenses. Also, as two of our most astute technologists, David Liroff of WGBH and David Felland of Milwaukee Public Television, have noted in important Current articles (not yet available online, but see the former's "DTV channel options: How much to mux?" in the 12 Feb. 2007 issue and the latter's "We've got to clean up our act in high-definition" in the 12 Mar. 2007 issue), upconverting non-HD programs is an inefficient use of our available digital capacity.
So while I agree we'd be much better off if our HD channel was truly HD, it's not something we can expect any time soon. We have two years to retain or even expand our base of over-the-air viewers before the Feb. 2009 analog shut off or we're going to suffer a big economic hit then. And we may have no more than that gain local-into-local DBS carriage of our HD channel also.
Let's work on both goals in tandem, but I think conforming our digital offerings to commercial practice is our most urgent task heading into 2009. --Dennis