U.S. TV's Digital Deadline: Obama Era's First Consumer Crisis?
• Delay the end of analog "TV as usual" or face viewer wrath come February
• Millions to be "disenfranchised" from free over-the-air service?
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As President-Elect Obama concentrates on tackling the America’s economic crisis, a hi-tech cultural crisis that could enrage millions looms on the video horizon.
Despite clear warning signs that millions of TV households aren’t ready, the Federal Communications Commission is moving forward to enforce a law that requires broadcast stations to permanently turn off so-called “analog” signals on February 17, 2009, to be replaced with a new digital "DTV" technology that most stations already have up and running.
If that cut-off date holds, only those who are equipped with recent-model digital TVs or government-subsidized digital-to-analog set-top converter boxes will be able to continue to receive free, over-the-air television.
(Those who buy cable or satellite TV, and are willing to pay extra to receive high-definition broadcast channels they otherwise could get over the air for free, don’t have to worry about the analog signal shut-off.)
But antenna-dependent analog set viewers who fail to upgrade their equipment will wake up to nothing but snow and static on the morning of February 18th -- unless lawmakers and regulators come to their senses and delay the “death of analog” until the public is truly ready for the digital switchover.
DTV TAXPAYER BILLIONS ALREADY SPENT
The government has spent some $2 billion to subsidize the cost of those set-top converters, and millions on advertising to make public aware of the so-called “digital TV transition.” But the Nielsen TV ratings company estimates that nearly 9 million TV households -- almost half of those who depend on over-the-air signals to get their TV -- have yet to purchase either a new digital set, or a set-top converter box.
(U.S. government-issued coupons good for $40 off the typical $60 selling price are available on request. Officials say about 60 percent of households with only analog sets have requested coupons, limited to two per family.)
Among the most “unready” viewers are people who cannot easily adapt to the changing TV landscape -- the poor, the elderly, people who don’t understand English (mainly, those of Hispanic descent), or simply those who just can’t get with the program -- the “technically challenged.”
Technological differences between digital and analog signals compound the situation. Digital signals are capable of providing a crystal-clear picture in full high-definition on high-def sets -- but signals are not as robust in fringe reception areas as old-fashioned analog.
In fringe areas, older analog sets still can receive a weak signal -- degraded by “ghosting” and “snow,” but still viewable. Digital signals, however, suffer from what’s termed the “cliff effect.” At the outer edges of a station’s signal “footprint,” the digital picture may suddenly dissolve into colored blocks that resemble an impressionist painting, and then go to black -- no picture at all.
SNOW AND STATIC FOR VIEWERS WHO WAIT?
Many viewers who can get a decent analog picture won’t know if they can receive full digital service until they actually get a digital set or install a converter box. If people who live in fringe signal areas wait until the last minute, they may find they’re unable to receive digital TV with their existing antenna. Those who receive adequate signals with indoor “rabbit ears” may discover that they need a roof-top antenna to receive all of the channels they got before.
Yet the industry’s advertising campaign has made scant mention of the antenna issue. That means many people still watching on analog sets may not realize they may have to install a roof-top antenna, or re-aim their old antenna, to continue to receive all available broadcast channels.
If the death of analog TV service isn’t pushed back, “there’s going to be an outcry like you’ve never seen,” predicts Michael Silbergleid, veteran television trade journal editor and writer. “Within a week of the shut-off, I predict that Congress will meet in an emergency session to reverse the decision.”
So why don’t regulators and the TV industry stave off a public relations nightmare and postpone the analog shut-off? Silbergleid notes that the end of analog has been pushed back before -- and that the government has invested a lot of taxpayer money in the converter coupon program and the DTV transition information campaign.
More delay, he says, could prompt criticism that the DTV transition program has turned into a wasteful boondoggle. “So they’re just hoping it works out.”
SMARTER TO TAKE IT SLOW?
Silbergleid thinks it would have been wiser to do the DTV transition more gradually, with analog shut-off put off for as long as another decade -- or at least until Aug. 31, 2011, which is the Canadian target date for analog shut-off. The tech writer also criticizes government regulators for adopting DTV signal transmission standards that aren’t as powerful and robust as the system now in use in Europe.
But Broadcasting & Cable magazine says that U.S. regulators and industry officials insist that the February deadline will stick -- despite widespread acknowledgment that many antenna-dependent viewers may be caught with their reception down.
Get Political believes that this state of digital TV affairs cannot stand. It’s not the public’s fault that many consumers aren’t ready; in our opinion, it’s a failure on the part of those who devised and executed the digital transition.
We predict that once officials of the incoming Obama administration get a clearer picture of the viewer chaos that would ensue with a sudden shutdown of “television as usual," it’s likely they’ll reverse course -- either by executive order or by a hastily-arranged Congressional vote.
Some telecommunications officials in both the private and public sectors may be left with digital egg on their faces -- but that’s a lot better than the recriminations they’ll surely face if this ill-timed analog TV sign-off is allowed to happen.
That's our take; what do you think? Sound off below.
WILL THE ELECTION EVEN MATTER?
Not as long as government-supported extrajudicial "vigilante injustice" squads are "gang stalking" American citizens, making a mockery of the rule of law: