The End of Analog TV: Still A Lot of Unanswered Questions

Ready or not, digital television transmission is on the way.
Could the US be facing a digital dark age in a little over one year?

As some people may be aware, congress has approved a law that forces all television stations in the United States to turn off their analog transmissions on February 17, 2009. This is so the FCC can then auction off those channels 52–59 (the lower half of the 700 MHz band) for "other communications traffic" which means the cell phone companies can start transmitting TV on their little 2 inch screened phones, in addition to increased bandwidth for public safety communications (so they say).

There are 20 million or so people that get their television signal through rabbit ears. A recent article on the website, E-Marketer, shows that of those 20 million, only 31% of those people even know about the transition to all-digital TV- yet these are the viewers who will be the most directly impacted.

The Government Accountability Office has criticized the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for their lack of planning on this.

The government has attempted to get consumers to understand what the transmission means by establishing a website to answer frequently asked questions and the FCC argues that they have been planning for this transition for over 20 years.

However, FCC commissioner Michael J. Copps agreed that they have no clue what they are doing:

"It continues to astound me that we do not have a comprehensive DTV transition plan" and that "the hour is late—very late."

And, while Congress has approved it and President Bush has signed it into law, there are still a lot of questions that have yet to be answered before the big switch-off can occur.

According to the DTV Transition Collation, TVs accessing pay television services such as cable or satellite aren't likely to be affected by the switch. However, in a recent article in TV Technology magazine, Echostar has said that it will not physically be able to transition from analog to digital on the cut-off date. DIRECTV has also said that it is going to need a “reasonable window after the transition date” in which to complete the satellite distribution element of the transition.

This is despite the fact that the FCC has said that there would be no extensions of time for TV stations to make the transitions. No exceptions will be made for stations that might experience technical or financial problems.

Television station General Managers are charged with the responsibility of supervising every aspect of the transition to digital television. But a recent LA Times article reported that congressional investigators have found that there is no single agency in charge of the transition.

At a recent forum presented by the Connecticut Broadcasters Association, several facts were pointed out:

-The FCC still has not issued final rulings on a number of issues TV stations must deal with in making the transition.

-The 20 million people that still receive TV signals through rabbit ears doesn't include some 65 million TV sets that may have the primary TV hooked up to DTV but the other one is not. (like in a Kitchen or bedroom).

-The FCC still has not ruled on whether must-carry rules will require cable and satellite systems to carry all HD channels of stations. Many stations operate secondary channels offering local news and weather, such as WNBC channel 4 and WABC-TV channel 7 New York. This will put a huge strain on bandwidth issues that the cable and sat providers are working on. (DIRECTV is in the process of switching their entire system to MPEG-4 technology, which should be a big help, but again, we dont know if this is going to be ready in time)

If stations have additional side channels, they are required to provide 3 hours of education "kidvid" programming for each stream of programming. Who is producing this content? Is it going to be re-runs of stuff everyone else is playing? This could be a great opportunity for producers to start looking at coming out with kids programming, but so far there hasnt been much activity.

The clock is ticking on this potential time bomb for broadcasters. The FCC says that this transition will be a significant bonus for consumers, but with no governing direction and some serious questions left unanswered, its going to make for some big dilemmas very soon.

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