The Digital (TV) Deadline

As we fast approach the deadline for the FCC-mandated transition to replace analog television broadcasting with digital service, I thought a little refresher from 10 years ago might be useful —  

Industries Agree on U.S. Standards for TV of the Future
?[From the  New York Times 11/26/1996, AUTHOR: Mark Landler] ??”Ending years of industry squabbling, the broadcasting, consumer electronics and computer industries announced an agreement on a technical standard for the next generation of television. The accord opened the door for the crystal-clear pictures and expanded services promised by digital television. It also set up a titanic battle for the nation’s living rooms between computer companies and television set manufacturers, both of which want to build the digital device that will display these images. Representatives of the industries worked out the deal in marathon talks over several weeks after Federal Communications Commissioner Susan Ness urged them to resolve their disputes so the Commission could ratify a standard for digital television by the end of the year.”

?And so, digital television (DTV) conversion continues apace.  Congress has set Feb. 17, 2009 as the deadline for turning off analog television signals and voilá!  we‘ll all be watching our favorite public television programs in glorious digital quality, and even High Definition (whenever available)…

Of course, even if all the existing television stations in the U.S. are able to replace their analog equipment with shiny, new digital transmission facilities on time, the transition will probably not be so smooth for us as viewers.  

At the instant that the analog signals are turned off, all of us will need digital receivers of some sort, because our existing analog tee vee sets won’t work any more. This is a particular issue for that slice of the public that only watches over-the-air broadcasting, because their analog sets will immediately go dark.  Replacing them could be costly, especially for folks with more than one television in their homes, because all of them will need to be replaced. 

For those of us who receive our television signals from indirect sources like cable or satellite, (in some markets, this might be as high as 80% of viewership)  it won’t be such a shock.  If we aren’t already getting digitals signals through our set-top box, we will be soon, because these providers are well along in rolling out digital converters to their subscribers.  Even so, there are going to be costs for us, too. Right now, there isn’t much public consciousness about this transition to DTV, and even with a mandate from the FCC that new television sets must become digital-broadcast ready, it is too soon to tell how this might play out at Best Buy or Circuit City. 

And while stations are busy plugging in expensive new gear, the rapid rise of on-demand viewing, time-shifting video recorders, and video on-line have deeply ‘eroded’ traditional television viewing.  Because this larger digital environment will continue to reshape our viewing habits, some people inside public television are arguing that over-the-air television as we know it is already dead.  Instead, they say, we should be turning to these more flexible and viewer-controlled outlets. 

Regardless, the genie of digital television – in all its existing and future forms —  is out of the bottle, and won’t be stuffed back in.  Which makes our efforts at preserving the programming, no matter how people watch it, all the more critical.  ?