A random look at the life and times of Jim Rising recovering radio addict and newspaper columnist.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Truth about Digital TV

Your government is pulling a fast one and this one is going to piss off millions of people. And guess what? When you drill down deep enough it’s all about the Benjamin’s. I am talking about the upcoming conversion from analog to digital TV transmitters which it scheduled to take place in February 2009.
This is pretty technical but to put it simply the F.C.C. in all its wisdom has decreed that TV stations scrap their analog transmitters that have served the public interest convenience and necessity for nearly 70 years. The broadcasters have to replace the reliable old ones with new digital ones which will cost Billions with a “B.” The problem here is that your old TV can’t see the new digital signal so you have the following options:

A: Get your TV over the cable or Satellite. If you currently receive TV over these sources you are in the clear. Don’t read any further. The change won’t bother you at all. And most people get TV this way.

B: Buy a converter box to change the digital signal to one your stupid old analog TV will understand.

Sounds pretty simple, right? Well hang on just a minute.

First, let’s examine why this is all happening.

Digital equals good, right? So this is all for bettering the quality of TV, right?
Well, yes and no. The digital signal will be better if you have a TV that is capable of seeing the difference. Your old black and white set from the 1970’s won’t and that is a key issue.
Most people who are getting TV from rabbit ears and roof top antennas are not living on the cutting edge of technology. One study estimates that nine million people in rural areas or who just are old and set in their ways will have a big problem with all this. That number again? NINE MILLION.

The problem will be that the new digital signal is not as strong as the old analog one. If you had good reception before, you may not in the digital age.
An old analog set would pick up fringe or weaker signals and show a snowy but watchable picture. Not so the new digital era. You either get it perfectly or it won’t work at all. And the news gets worse. No one will know for sure how bad or good this all will be until February of next year. When they turn off the analog transmitters it’s forever. The new digital transmitters so far have a smaller footprint of signal coverage than the analog ones. That may be because the broadcasters haven’t turned up the power. It may be they will never be as good as before.

So getting back to why this is all happening. Sure the digital transmissions will look better IF you can get them IF your TV is good enough to tell the difference. But why turn off the old analog service? They can run side by side. Radio is doing that now. The reason?

Cha ching!

Listen carefully and you will hear the sound of a giant cash register ringing.

The malarkey that the F.C.C. is feeding you? That an important benefit of the switch to all-digital broadcasting is that it will free up parts of the valuable broadcast spectrum for public safety communications (such as police, fire departments, and rescue squads). Um Ok. BUT……

Buried in that big pile of horse manure is this little tidbit. Some of the spectrum will be auctioned to companies that will be able to provide consumers with more advanced wireless services (such as wireless broadband).

Aha! The Government is gonna make some money.

And if you drill down even further this whole mess was prompted by Cellular phone companies.

It seems that when the analog TV band goes dead those former channels that are no longer good enough for TV will be just dandy for improving cell phone service. Imagine that? Cell phone companies will make some cha ching too? How nice for them.

Meanwhile Grandma and Grandpa may get fewer TV channels and have to install this converter box.

And here is where it really gets interesting. The Government is subsidizing the purchase of these digital to analog boxes by sending out coupons good for $40 off the purchase of these boxes. When I say the Government is subsidizing this you do know where this money came from, right? Check your wallet.


Oh yeah, we got problems.

I sent away for the two cards (the maximum you are allowed) as soon as they became available. It took several months for them to arrive and when they did they had an expiration date after 90 days. They are no good after June. First issue here, they arrived in late April with only 60 days left to use. ??? What? Now I have only two months to figure this out.

They also limit the stores where you can buy the units.

Most of the units cost now cost $60 bucks so you are out $20.

Later on this summer prices will go down to $40 bucks but that will be after my cards are no good.

And most stores have no units at all or only ones that cost $70 or more.

And all of the units are not created equal. The converter boxes are a free-market item and according to Consumer Reports vary widely in quality and user friendliness. Some have remote controls, some don’t. Some come with cables, some not so much.

It is in a word S.N.A.F.U. (ask a vet what that means)

Radio is going through the same sort of transition. I am sure you have heard the ads for “HD Radio.” The difference is that radio for reasons best known on “M” street where the F.C.C. lives in Washington will not have to turn off the analog transmitters. Your old radios will all work just fine. You don’t have to buy a converter. Net result, and this is my opinion, “HD Radio” will go the way of Quadraphonic albums or AM Stereo. If you said “Huh?” you get the idea.

Now in case you think I am not in favor of technical progress let me add the following.

Consumers will also benefit because digital broadcasting allows stations to offer improved picture and sound quality, and digital is much more efficient than analog. For example, rather than being limited to providing one analog program, a broadcaster is able to offer a super sharp “high definition” (HD) digital program or multiple “standard definition” (SD) digital programs simultaneously through a process called “multicasting.” Multicasting allows broadcast stations to offer several channels of digital programming at the same time, using the same amount of spectrum required for one analog program. So, for example, while a station broadcasting in analog on channel 7 is only able to offer viewers one program, a station broadcasting in digital on channel 7 can offer viewers one digital program on channel 7-1, a second digital program on channel 7-2, a third digital program on channel 7-3, and so on. This means more programming choices for viewers on these “side channels.” Further, DTV can provide interactive video and data services that are not possible with analog technology.

Well that’s pretty cool. Except for one problem. Most people get TV over cable or satellite. You will NOT be able to see all those exciting new “side channels” there. You will get them only if you get your TV “over the air.” That means back to the antenna or rabbit ears. And then only if you have a digital tuner equipped TV or…you guessed it-a converter box.
How much effort and $ do you think TV broadcasters will put into these side channels that no one can see? Can you say slim and none and slim left town?

Radio has these new “side channels” as well. When I worked in that business it was common for the side channels to be off the air for WEEKS at a time.
No one cared. I predict the same sort of attention will be given to TV’s side channels.

So long story short. Your Government in action has found a way to screw nine million people. Well they are all hicks and old folks anyway, right?


PocketRadio said...

The mandated 2009 digital TV changeover is to auction-off the spectrum - there is no such mandate for digit radio, as it is in-band-off-channel. HD Radio is a bigger farce, as it is an attempt to hijack our public airways by iBiquity/HD Alliance. HD Radio suffers from dropouts, interference, poor coverage, amd bland HD channel programming:


All digital sucks.

Jim Rising said...

Plus-and this is again my humble but somewhat educated opinion-HD radio transmission has degraded analog signals by a lot.

On another issue.
I gave an HD radio to a buisinessman who is a big radio fan.We had stacks of them at the place I used to work for this purpose to "educate" the public.
His comment to me? It doesn't work so good and he couldn't get the side channels.
Not a dumb man this.

Back to TV.

TV will have written off those nine million people because the FCC and Big cell phone companies wanted to free up the spectrum and make some $. Bottom line.

Doug Smith said...

Your bottom line is likely accurate. Broadcasters were in a hurry to get something going to accommodate high-definition, knowing that cable could implement it without waiting for FCC approval. The cellular industry saw a way to get their hands on some more spectrum, and the government saw a chance to collect some revenue in the process.

I will dispute or at least try to clarify a few items...


"The digital signal will be better if you have a TV that is capable of seeing the difference. Your old black and white set from the 1970’s won’t..."

Your old B&W TV won't display the full resolution of high-definition TV, but your standard-definition picture is likely to be a LOT better. Many of the annoyances in analog reception - especially, noise from computers and utility lines - disappear with digital reception. Since I bought my converter box ($300 a few years ago, before coupons!) I can get a clear picture from ABC and PBS on my old-fashioned 19" analog set.


"But why turn off the old analog service? They can run side by side. Radio is doing that now."


Much of the limitation on digital coverage is not because it's digital, but because of interference from analog stations on the same channel.

Or, because the power of the digital station must be limited to prevent interference to analog stations on the same channel.

Leaving the analog signals on permanently leaves this interference in place and limits both the digital and analog coverage.

(digital radio is not a good good example. Digital radio occupies one (FM) or two (AM) channels either side of the analog signal. Without regard for any signals that may already be there. The nighttime interference on the AM band is quite noticable.)


"When I say the Government is subsidizing this you do know where this money came from, right? Check your wallet."

The theory is that the revenues from the auction of the spectrum to cellular providers will pay for the coupons. Yeah, I know.....


"Most people get TV over cable or satellite. You will NOT be able to see all those exciting new “side channels” there. You will get them only if you get your TV “over the air.”"
"How much effort and $ do you think TV broadcasters will put into these side channels that no one can see? Can you say slim and none and slim left town?"

In the short term, true. A proceeding is open that would, if adopted, require carriage of the side channels.

More popular stations can demand something from cable operators in turn for the right for carriage. (a cable system not allowed to carry CBS might have some difficulty competing with satellite!) It's fairly common for a major station to ask a cable operator to carry a side channel in return for permission to carry the main station. Two of the stations here in Nashville (ABC and NBC) do this; their side channels are on digital cable.

And yes, we do pay attention to the side channel - because there actually is revenue out there!

Anonymous said...


If you are interested, I started a thread on radio-info, and you received some responses:


Jim Rising said...

Thanks for the clarifications and for the posting on Radio-info. I looked at them and see that I have some dissent.

Bottom line remains the same.

FCC and cell companies killed over the air analog TV for their own purpose, not for the greater good (that I can see) of the great unwashed rabbit ear users.

Glad to see some are at least taking the time to think about it.