Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The revolution WILL be televised

Okay, imagine this futuristic scenario.

The date is February 18, 2009. You wake up in the morning, pour yourself a cup of coffee and get ready for work while you flip on the telly to the Today show for your morning news fix. Only thing is, there's nothing there. Just static. Flipping furiously though the channels, you notice the same thing. No picture, no sound. Nothing but static. What happened?

It probably won't happen this way, but It's a somewhat realistic scenario for some. Particularly since there are still people out there that rely on the ubiquitous rabbit ear antenna to pull in over-the-air signals direct to their television set. This task will take on some rather profound changes in the next year and a half.

Currently, we are in the midst of a digital revolution. And a major part of this involves television. In the 1990s, the federal government laid down the path for an eventual conversion from the 60 year-old analog broadcast standard to a digital one. Yes, if all goes as planned, the analog television standard will be history come February 18, 2009. This date was set two years ago, after a couple other ill-advised set dates were changed. Gone will be the fuzzy signals, the ghost-like images, and various interference often found on the box. In its place will be crystal-clear images, sharp sound, multicast channels, widescreen dimensions and a lack of static and ghosts.

Undoubtedly, many may have noticed digital TV, often called DTV, in the world around us. From the frequent mentions of "Available in High Definition" on TV stations, to the wide array of plasma and LCD widescreen sets that have taken over the shelves of Best Buy, the digital revolution is going on right here, right now.

Yesterday marked a milestone in digital television. USA Today published an article on the front page of the Life section, laying out what's in store for television. More importantly, the FCC released the final and official list of DTV assignments for broadcast stations. Yes, many of the stations you watch are changing channels. Many of them are even going to UHF.

Again, what the hell is going on here?

Well first, an explanation of what DTV is. The FCC's page on DTV claims it to be "an advanced broadcasting technology that will transform your television viewing experience. DTV enables broadcasters to offer television with movie-quality picture and sound. It can also offer multiple programming choices, called multicasting, and interactive capabilities."

Currently, most TV stations are using two separate channels: Their long-established analog channel and a temporary one for digital broadcasting. Since UHF signals are better suited for this purpose, most digital channels can be found here, though some higher VHF channels (ch. 7-13) are also adequate for this. Lower VHF channels (ch. 2-6, a.k.a. the low FM band) are not very good for digital broadcasting, as they are prone to interference. That's why many of those stations are moving. The FCC's newly released list shows the channels that stations have opted to use once their analog signal is shut off.

So, why exactly is analog going away? Is it a plot by the federal government to force us all to subscribe to cable or buy a satellite dish? Are the lobbyists representing those industries that good? Actually, no. The U.S. is not alone in switching to digital. Most every country on earth has either converted, are in the process of converting, or have made plans to do so. Luxembourg and The Netherlands have already gone completely digital. Finland and Switzerland will follow in the next few months. And Sweden, Germany and Austria will join them next year. The U.K. has already begun the analog shutoff in various parts of the country. Many more will follow in the years ahead.

In addition, the move to DTV allows the FCC at the same time to make some long-desired adjustments to the television spectrum. A couple decades ago, the commission removed channels 70-83 from the spectrum (remember when the old UHF tuners went that high?) and reallocated that chunk of the airwaves mostly to cell phone providers, public safety, land mobile and other wireless communications concerns. Now, they'd like to get rid of channels 52-69, as they can rake in billions of dollars by selling this spectrum space for use by advanced wireless services.

With digital television and the massive channel switch to follow, this process will be rather simple. How, you ask? Well, it all boils down to something called digital channel mapping, or the concept of the 'virtual channel'. To the right is a sample list, using Chicago as an example. As you can see, WMAQ channel 5, a long-established VHF station, is currently broadcasting their digital signal on channel 29, and they have opted to move there permanantly. Even though they are already broadcasting digitally on 29, their digital channel still maps to channel 5. Therefore, WMAQ will still show up as channel 5. They'll still be found at channel 5 on the local cable systems as well. When the changeover takes place, the actual physical channel location will, in many instances, mean little to the average person. WMAQ will be 'channel 5' in name only. Just like channel 2 will still be channel 2, channel 9 will still be channel 9, and so on.

So, what does this really mean, anyways? Will my TV work in 2009, or will it just become a rather large paperweight taking up valuable living room space? Do I really have to take out a mortgage and buy one of those expensive new plasma large screen TVs? Not exactly. Sure, most sets built before two years ago are not equipped with digital tuning capabilities. They need something else. Namely a set-top box. By the end of this year, or early next year, you will see digital converter boxes available in your local retail outlet. This little black box, which will likely sell for anywhere between $50-70, will effectively do the job in pulling in these digital signals. Another option would be to purchase a newer DVR, DVD recorder or VCR (if those are still around) equipped with digital tuning. For cable and satellite subscribers, nothing to worry about, since the current set top box will work as it did before. But isn't this whole thing merely just a raw deal for poor and elderly people who can't afford cable? After all, the government is asking people to go out and spend more money for something they currently enjoy for free. Starting early next year, the FCC is making available vouchers with a value up to $40, good toward purchase of a new tuner box, but are rather vague on the details. As for the rabbit ears, they'll work just fine.

But along with the stick required of buying yet another electronic box to plug in to the TV set, comes the proverbial carrot. Digital TV offers some pretty nice advantages. First off, the stations will be clearer. Even standard definition will look better in digital. Reception may improve in many cases, as digital signals are sent out differently than analog - you either get the station or you don't. There is no in-between.

Furthermore, and this is the cool part, digital viewers will get more channels, much like HD Radio. With a digital signal, TV stations have access to quite a bit of wavelength. This can be used to broadcast in high definition with surround sound. Or it could be used for multicasting. With up to five subchannels available, stations can virtually program multiple channels. One widely-used example is NBC, which has designed a 24/7 highly customizable and localized weather service for their affiliates called "NBC Weather Plus." AccuWeather has a similar DTV service available. Public broadcasting stations, often among the first to implement new technology, make heavy use of subchannels. PBS has several services available, including an HD service, a Kids Channel, an educational channel and a network called Create, which offers a variety of lifestyle and how-to shows, including some of the best travel programming found on any type of television.

Individual stations often opt to make their own programming choices. In some smaller markets, a station may use a subchannel as an affiliate of another network (some stations have picked up the CW network affiliation to put on their subchannel). WDJT in Milwaukee and WCIU in Chicago, both co-owned, use their subchannel (58.2 and 26.2 respectively) to expand the signals of low-powered local sister stations. WOWT in Omaha established their own separate independent station, 62O, on a subchannel (6.2). And a few third party networks have struck deals to program subchannels. The Tube, which carries 24/7 music videos, is carried by many stations owned by Raycom, Tribune Broadcasting and Sinclair. Retro Television Network (RTN) is a newer network, specializing in older, classic TV shows that TV Land and others have long since ignored, and appears on a few subchannels. Even networks that most have never heard of, like America One and Omni, may find new life via subchannel carriage. Ethnic viewers may find more viewing options as networks targeting the Asian and Hispanic communities could quite possibly show up on DTV.

Okay, sounds pretty cool, you say. And you're probably thinking about just going ahead and buying a TV anyway. Well, this gets pretty confusing. Make sure whatever TV, DVR, DVD recorder, tuner box, etc. you are buying is digital ready. It doesn't have to necessarily be a high definition unit, and the cheaper ones won't be. Nonetheless, there is an abundance of new LCD flat panel models going for very reasonable prices. And they're smaller, lightweight and put out a great picture. If you happen to run across a clearance model or older tube-style TV, buy it at your own risk. Many of these may be quite old and may or may not be compatible without a tuner box. Target and Wal-Mart have just started labeling non-compliant units, and Best Buy will start soon. Make sure you know what you're buying. Ask a salesperson. And those $20 black-and-white jobs at Walgreens? The thing will be useless in a year and a half. Avoid.

So, will the DTV transition fly? Will there be riots in the streets from irate people who can't watch Judge Judy? The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) estimates that a third of the nation's households has at least one TV that pulls in signals from the sky. And more than 60% of the nation's population has no idea that big changes are in store. Likely, the February 2009 cutoff will stick this time around, as the television industry and the FCC have been making big plans for this. Hopefully, we'll all be ready.


Emacee said...

You only need an HD converter on an analog set if you receive the station off the air. If you have cable, satellite or fiber optics, you already have a converter and are probably already watching digital channels (except on a few older analog cable systems that have not been upgraded or maintain an analog tier).

ltr said...

Funny, I thought that's what I said in the article.

And HD and digital are two different animals. Not all digital TV is HD. Actually, most of it currently would be called SD (standard definition). No converter in the world will give HD quality on the old 20 year-old RCA console. But at least it could pull in digital signals.

radiofan14 said...

Maybe the FCC should remove channel 6 (and maybe Channel 5 too) and expand the FM band.

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