More likely, we're in for the biggest fiasco since the U.S. Government tried to convert us to the metric system between 1973 and 1982.
DTV proponents would have you believe they're improving our quality of life with "Crystal-clear pictures and sound, and more programming choices than ever before."
But there's a far darker side to the Digital Television Transition. And it's not just about money. It's about control: what you can watch, how you can watch it, when you can watch it.
And who's in control? Not you! Not you with the remote (unless your remote says "TV B Gone" on it). Yes, television is going to change. And you're probably not going to like it.
The modern age of electronic communication was ushered in with the Communications Act of 1934, which embodied certain core principles. Key among them was the notion that the airwaves were a public resource: they belonged to all of us, just like national parks. The Federal Communications Commission was entrusted with custodianship. They licensed broadcasters—not only to minimize interference, but to ensure they operated in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. Nothing here prevented big corporate interests from being wildly profitable; it just made it clear they were there for the benefit of consumers, and not the other way around.
Here's a somewhat condensed timeline of what happened next:
Black & White television was standardized in 1941; the first commercial television network began operation in 1946; the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences was founded later that same year; in 1947, the MPAA began the Hollywood Blacklist; channel assignments 2-83 were finalized in 1948; UHF television appeared in 1952; the RIAA was founded the same year; the NTSC "compatible color" television standard followed in 1953; the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences was founded in 1955; the All-Channel Receiver Act of 1962 took effect in 1964; A.C. Nielsen reported 93.9% of all U.S. TV households watched network coverage of Apollo 11 in 1969.
In 1970, TV channels 70-83 were taken away and given to what would become the cell phone industry. Channel 37 was reserved exclusively for radio astronomy use in 1974. The Copyright Act of 1976 took effect in 1978. Closed Captioning standards were published in 1980. Low-Power Television service was established in 1982. The Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that home taping of television shows constituted "fair use." The BTSC standard for Multichannel Television Sound was adopted the same year. FOX became the fourth major television network in 1986. The Berne Convention Implementation Act of 1988 worsened copyright law. The 1988 Writers Guild strike opened the door for unscripted "reality" television to take hold. New TVs had to incorporate Closed Caption decoders in 1993. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 authorized the FCC to auction off portions of spectrum to the highest bidder—a radical change from the way broadcast licenses had been issued up to this point (comparative hearings, and, in some cases, lotteries).
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 "deregulated" the television industry (encouraging ownership consolidation), and introduced the V-chip—which was marketed as "for the children," but whose warped definition of "objectionable content" prevents beating someone to a bloody pulp (think boxing) and vicious hate-mongering (certain "televangelists") from ever being blocked by concerned parents. (Ads aren't blockable, either, which should come as no surprise.) In late 1996, the FCC adopted the ATSC standards for digital television broadcasting, leaving Americans with not only the worst analog television broadcasting standard in the world, but the worst digital one as well.
DVD players became available in the U.S. in 1997. Unlike the earlier Laserdiscs, DVDs featured several anti-consumer [mis]features, including regional lockout and unskippable commercials. The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 proposed doing away with analog broadcasting by 2006 (which didn't happen), and mandated FCC auctions to resolve mutually exclusive applications for initial licenses. 1998 gave us the two worst pieces of copyright legislation in U.S. history: Sonny Bono's infamous Copyright Term Extension Act, followed by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Mandatory V-chips date from 1999. The Community Broadcasters Protection Act of 1999 took effect in 2000, whereupon the FCC established Class A television service. In 2000, the FCC thumbed their noses at radio astronomers by authorizing "low-power medical telemetry" on Channel 37. 2001 gave us the USA PATRIOT Act. The FCC almost succeeded in enacting the MPAA's Broadcast Flag in 2003. They subsequently approved HDCP in 2004. This goes hand-in-hand with a little-known digital "land mine" waiting to be set off by the Image Constraint Token some time in 2010-2012. The ICT triggers quality degradation of high-definition content down to 540p.
- Why did we need a deficit reduction act?
- Because the current administration erased the surplus it inherited, by cutting taxes on the wealthy and spending like there's no tomorrow.
- What's does that have to do with Digital Television?
- Auction 73 proceeds go straight into the U.S. Treasury to ease the deficit. This auction took away the spectrum necessary to maintain current analog television service and sold it to the highest bidders (primarily AT&T and Verizon). Of course, it failed to live up to its promises because the "D block" didn't sell; it was hamstrung by a "public safety" requirement (i.e. post-9/11 hysteria), which the cherry-pickers and cream-skimmers wisely avoided.
- How does giving two $40 coupons to every household reduce the deficit?
- It doesn't. Those coupons are only valid for the purchase of converter boxes, which come mostly from places like China and South Korea. This encourages millions of seniors, low-income, and disabled people to spend money on something that worsens our trade deficit and weakens the dollar.
- What if I'm not a senior, low-income, or disabled?
- Then you should be buying new big-screen digital TVs to replace the perfectly good, otherwise still-working analog TVs you're watching now. Not only will this send even more money overseas to ruin the U.S. economy, it invites environmental disaster, as all your old TVs are full of hazardous materials you wouldn't want to dump on your sidewalk.
- Could anyone else use our "old" TVs?
- They're called Canadians, eh. Their Digital Transition will happen more than a year and a half after ours. Of course, our "old TVs" will still be good for viewing prerecorded media, using with video game consoles, etc., even after the transition.
- But isn't Digital TV supposed to be so much better?
- That depends on how you define "better." The writing isn't going to improve, the jokes aren't going to be any funnier, and the news won't be any more informative.
- What about the clearer picture?
- Do you really need to see every blemish and be able to count every pore? Who really benefits are ... advertisers!
- What about more programming choices?
- That really means more reruns, more advertising, and more infomercials.
- If I do nothing, will I lose my ability to watch TV after February 17, 2009?
- That depends on where you are. If you're in Wilmington, NC, your transition date is September 8, 2008. All the full-power stations except the PBS affiliate are going dark. Imagine flipping channels and finding nothing on the air except Barney & Friends. Ewww! On the other hand, if you're in San Diego, CA, XETV (currently a CW affiliate) can continue analog broadcasts until the year 2022.
- What's the deal with low-power stations?
- They may stay on the air after February 17, 2009. Imagine flipping channels and seeing nothing but religious and home shopping stations. Warning: Some low-power stations have filed "digital flash cut" applications. They're going bye-bye.
- What's the deal with the Community Broadcasters Association's "Keep Us On" campaign?
- They claim that most Class A and Low Power Television stations will continue analog broadcasting, and converter boxes that don't pass through analog signals will block reception.
- So I should look for a converter box that features analog pass-through?
- Not necessarily. The CBA is assuming a worst-case scenario, where your analog TV set only has a single antenna input. If your TV has composite (or better, S-Video) inputs, get a converter box with the corresponding outputs. You'll still be able to use the NTSC tuner in your TV (although you might need a splitter if you want to share a single antenna between your TV and the converter box, just as you currently would with a VCR).
- If my TV has multiple inputs, but only one of them is S-Video, should I use that for my converter box or my DVD player?
- Pick one. For a straight DVD player (as opposed to a VCR/DVD combo unit), I'd probably run the DVD into the S-Video, and the converter into composite. With a combo, you might be better off doing things the other way around.
- With my current analog-only setup, I can watch one program and record a different one at the same time on my VCR. How do I do that with a converter box?
- That's why the government is offering you two coupons.
- So I have to buy a pair of converter boxes?
- Actually, you want to buy two different converter boxes.
- If I go into a retailer like Best Buy, they only carry one kind of converter box. What's wrong with buying two of them?
- Nothing, if you're planning on using them with two television sets located in different rooms. If you're planning on putting two in the same room (one to watch TV, one to record), they need to be different so they won't both respond to the same remote control codes. If changing the channel on one also changes to the same channel on the other, that defeats the purpose of having two converter boxes.
- What if I have TVs in different rooms, each with VCRs?
- Each converter box after the first two will cost you an additional $40, unless you have a "friend" with an "extra" coupon (or two).
- My TV has a "Picture-in-Picture" feature. Do I need two converter boxes in order to use it?
- Yes; this is like the TV+VCR scenario.
- I'm a cable TV subscriber, so I don't have to worry about this, right?
- Wrong! Cable companies are allowed to discontinue analog service at any time. However, unless they opt to go all-digital, they're required to continue offering analog versions of local broadcast stations for three more years. After that, too bad! Also, should something "go wrong" with your cable TV service, you won't be able to receive emergency broadcasts in an disaster (hurricane, earthquake, etc.) unless you have a DTV converter box. And here's the kicker: many people who subscribe to basic cable because their over-the-air analog reception is lousy due to multipath ("ghosts") or poor signal quality ("snow") might discover they have perfect digital reception and no longer need to shell out big bucks each month to the cable company. Cable companies really don't want the public to know this.
- What about satellite TV subscribers?
- You're in a better position than cable subscribers, but you really should have a converter box if you can pick up any digital broadcast stations.
- How do I pick a coupon-eligible converter box? There are so many to choose from.
- That's the tricky part. The first thing to understand is that there are things every CECB has to do, some features you'd probably like to have that no CECB is permitted to offer, and a significant "gray area" in between that could make all the difference in the world. For example, not many boxes offer S-Video outputs. Very few boxes are VCR-friendly (a notable exception being the DTVPal, but you might want to hold off purchasing one until details of approved-but-unavailable competitors are released). Certain "optional" features (like remote control) have been universally adopted, while others (like BTSC Stereo in RF output) don't seem to have been implemented anywhere. See if you can find product reviews (e.g. Consumer Reports, CNet); quality varies a lot, some of the first converter boxes on the market were real stinkers, and a lot of people either let their coupons expire waiting for announced products that never appeared on store shelves, or got stuck buying inferior models.
The 2007-2008 Writers Guild strike left us with more choices of crystal-clear nothing worth watching.
aware of deadline for digital TV signal,
San Francisco Chronicle, 8/17/2008
- Chicago Media Action's DTVredalert.org
- NTIA's CECB List
- Wikipedia's Comparison of CECB units
- EZ Digital TV's Additional Features Matrix