DTV Primer

Chris Llana, Editor


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Updated July 2, 2006

Much of the most intense political maneuvering has subsided as the decisions leading up to the end of the transition to digital television have been resolved (but many seem to have a way of being resurrected). But a perspective of how and why those decisions were made is useful in understanding the state of the transition now.

Converting to an all new television standard has and will cost everyone a lot of money. We're talking billions of dollars here. Politicians being what they are--money talks, nobody walks.

Nobody has wanted to be out front in the transition. You spend a lot of money and you don't get much in return. So you tell the politicians "I'm doing my part; it's the other guy who is dragging his feet--regulate him!"

Broadcasters need to buy all new equipment, much of which is brand new technology, with premium pricing, and because digital TV technology is developing so quickly, it may become obsolete within a year or two.

And it's not just a matter of switching from analog to digital; broadcasters must essentially operate two parallel stations--digital and analog channels--with two separate programming streams, for years.

For most of those years, the number of viewers watching the digital channel was and is very low, which means that advertisers will not be willing to foot the bill for the digital stream.

Neither were TV manufacturers and retailers anxious to develop, build, and sell digital TVs because the technology was evolving and expensive. It initially was a hard sell to consumers because of the high prices for digital sets and little digital high-definition programming to watch.

Now that prime-time high-definition programming is the rule rather than the exception, consumers have a good reason to run out and buy those big high-definition sets. And smaller ones too, except that manufacturers are still not making any digital widescreen small TVs.

So why aren't the broadcasters advertising the pending shut-off of analog/NTSC broadcasts in public service announcements? Well, many or most local stations, while on the air with digital, operated digital channels that were not up to full power (until July 1, 2006). Many of their suburban customers who could tune in their analog broadcasts just fine could not receive their digital channel. If cable and satellite services do not carry their digital channel, their audiences will be small.

Satellite providers have carried most local station's analog channels, but are just now starting to carry their high-definition digital channels. Some smaller TV affiliates still lack the equipment to broadcast their network's high-definition programming, opting to downconvert those popular shows to standard-definition before sending them out over the airwaves.

Cable companies all carry local stations' analog channels, but many do not offer their high-definition channels. Other cable companies offer the high-def channels at a premium price. There is no government mandate for the cable companies to carry both analog and digital channels, or to carry digital channels as part of their mandated "basic" package. The cable companies like it that way; the broadcasters want them to carry both ("dual must-carry").

For years the consumer electronics industry promised the government that they would inform the consumer about the transition just as soon as a hard cutoff date was set. Now that February 17, 2009 is that date, the industry is still not doing much to inform consumers.

Why? Because they are still making and selling huge numbers of analog-only TVs and if consumers knew about the transition, they would stop buying them.

The government can mandate solutions to any one of these problems, but almost always at the expense of another influential special interest. And the government itself is frequently self-conflicted.

The biggest political hot potato involves the consumer: when to tell the consumer that the U.S. NTSC television standard is being wholly replaced by an incompatible digital ATSC standard. "Those tens of millions of analog sets you bought last year are so many pieces of junk! Sorry we didn't tell you five years ago."

Many politicians have admitted that telling them would be political suicide, so they continue to keep their mouths shut.

The decision of when to tell seemed to be connected to the decision on setting a final hard date for the shut-off. Once that has been set, they kept saying, then tell them. Of course, they're still left with the issue of what to do about all the tens of millions of Americans who rely on free over-the-air broadcasts to get their television programming, and who still have analog NTSC television sets.

A limited government subsidy program for digital-to-analog converter boxes has been established, but the government agency tasked with implementing it has not come out with the rules.

You get the feeling that they would all like to just drag out the whole transition to the point that it would sort of happen without anyone knowing about it. Eventually everyone would end up with a digital set, when their old analog ones finally died.

But the broadcasters don't want to have to keep running two separate transmitters (very expensive) for another ten years. They don't want a quick end to the transition either, because many smaller TV stations would like to wait until their old analog equipment is old before replacing it with expensive digital components.

The biggest political motivator for many in Congress was the value of the extra set of analog channels that the broadcasters are now using for free. When analog broadcasts stop, part of that spectrum will be returned to the government and auctioned off for $billions to other wireless service providers.

All of these "other" wireless service companies of course lobbied hard for an early cut-off of analog broadcasts. (Didn't get it.)

Auction revenues will essentially be "free" money for the government to help offset huge deficits.

Part of the returned spectrum will go to public safety (emergency response) agencies to be used for better radio communcations. There was a lot of political support for this.

There are still plenty of politics to go around. Lobbyists aren't about to lose their jobs; they'll make sure of that.