More DTV Transition Confusion

For a day job, I work in the television broadcasting industry. As part of that job (but more of a personal hobby, really), I study the minutiae involved with the FCCs plan to drag the US over-the-air television systems out from their archaic analog broadcast frequencies and into the new-fangled, hifalutin, frontier of the digital tomorrow.

Watching all of the ensuing confusion unfold leaves me with a tremendous feeling of wanting to shout from the rooftops, "I told you so!"

The long and now convoluted history of the digital television transition goes back as early as 1996. It took nine years for a formal plan to be finally agreed upon. Everyone involved decided that a "hard date" to switch off the analog transmitters on Feb 17, 2009 was the right thing to do to avoid confusion among consumers.

But then as the calendar started creeping closer, certain issues began to crop up. Despite their efforts to get the word out, it was discovered that a large number of the population had no idea that the digital transition was going to take place. The elderly and low-income Hispanic families would be the most affected. In order to avoid having to purchase new TV's, converters boxes were manufactured to help receive the new digital signals on older sets. The cost of the converters was figured to be about $50 - $80, and to aid the people most affected, a program was set up to issue $40 discount coupons. However, the program ran out of money and the backlog for coupons quickly grew to over 2 million people. To make matters worse, the coupons have a 90 day expiration date on them and a lot of coupons have gone unclaimed.

With two federal agencies "running" the operation abut barely communicating with each other, the situation has "clusterfuck" written all over it from the start.

Fear mongers started cropping up saying that we were facing a new dark age: that millions of people would turn on their TV's on the morning of February 18th and see nothing but static. Panic would quickly ensue: Looters would take to the streets and destroy the very fiber of our society; The world would start to spin backwards and cockroaches would quickly morph into the size of small cars (already a reality if you live in New York).

However, in the effort to quell the mass hysteria that would apparently occur from this transition, the government in their infinite wisdom - and through the hard work of several special interest groups all claiming to be looking out for our best interest - decided that we weren't ready to pull the plug just yet and that we should move the hard date of February 17th a little further down the calendar to June 12.

But then the TV stations that had spent considerable time and effort to make themselves ready for the hard date started grumbling that they would incur even more time and expense in prolonging the cutoff. PBS stations, for example, that rely almost entirely on the donations of the public, would have to fork out thousands of dollars to delay the switch while the digital transmitters they are making payments on stayed idle. And some stations run both analog and digital at the same time, further increasing their monthly operational costs.

So to fix this, the FCC decided that if a station was ready to go at the original date, they could still shut down at that time. And some of them plan on shutting off earlier. Out of 1,800 television stations in the US, there were 491 petitions from stations to transition to digital earlier than the Feb 17th date. Out of that, the FCC approved 368 of them.

For a list of which stations will be shutting off early, click here.

But wait! what about emergency services? What if there was a disaster and the only way to communicate with the populace was through the television? What would happen then??? More panic! More hysteria! Oh fie! Oh mercy!

So the FCC made the decision that while some stations could shut off at the original date, there would have to be a few stations left in each market to act as a proverbial "night light" in case an emergency were to take place during that time. Now, there will be at least one station in each market on the air with the analog signal for at least 30 days after the transition date.

To make the situation more confusing, there are almost 200 TV stations around the country that have either already pulled the plug on their analog signals or planned to do so before Feb. 17. Hawaii's hard date was Jan. 15; Wilmington, N.C., did it last Sept. 8.

And there are reports that some of the converter boxes dont work at all.

This whole circus of confusion will start unfolding in the next few days and will continue through June 12's and possibly several weeks, (if not months) afterward as there will no-doubt be people still living in a bubble that wont realize why their TV no longer works.

Personally, I'll be watching Netflix and going to movies. Or maybe just reading a book. Sometimes the old analog way of doing things are best.


Imee said...

confusion is right. one of your last few paragraphs made me laugh but also provoked my thoughts. what if there was an emergency and tv is one of the best ways to tell the population? tadah! more confusion.

The Judge said...

Exactly! Which is why congress passed the "Night Light" bill to set up at least one station in each market that will remain in analog to send emergency information to anyone that might not have a converter.

Of course, this all depends on people watching TV at the time of an emergency.

So here's to hoping that the next tornado happens during primetime.

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