Digital Television transition: are you ready for June 12?

So, the digital television cut over is finally going to happen.  In six days, on June 12, the analog signals will be shut off we will, finally, be living in a mostly digital world.  Our music is mostly digital now, our cell phones, our personal media players, our methods for watching movies, you name it and it is probably a digital device of some kind.  The microprocessor and large scale integration microchips have made this digital world possible.  Whether or not this is a good thing is not in the scope of this posting.

About 1.14 million people, however, will not think the switch over is a good thing and those people will lose access to television.  According to the Nielsen company, about ten percent of the 114 million viewers in the country are not prepared for the transition.  Rural and inner city residence will be the most affected.  These people include lower income, elderly, handicapped and homes where little to no English is spoken.  And money is not always the problem for lack of reception.

As the Wilmington, NC transition taught us, technical reason may also play into the lack of a signal.  The digital signals are UHF and, as such, are much more vulnerable to ones surroundings.  The signals do not travel as far as VHF signals and when the digital stream is interrupted, viewers will see artifacting, picture freezes or complete loss of picture.  Weather will play a huge role in quality of signals as well.  Other factors include topography and things like lots of vehicles in one area at the same time.  The difference between analog and digital reception, however, is that when there is enough signal-no matter how weak-for the television or converter box to decode, the picture will be sharp and crystal clear, unlike analog which would be very snowy and probably not very watchable.

Areas that may be hardest hit include major markets like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Puerto Rico, which has the highest rate of homes without cable or satellite.

Now, I don’t want to come off as some callous creature without a heart, but we’ve had over TEN YEARS to prepare for this.  The transition date was changed numerous times, most recently after President Obama took office in January of 2009.  He requested and got a delay to help ease the transition as the last date was to be February 17, 2009.  The new date became June 12, 2009.  Look, television stations have been announcing the date for nearly a year.  It has been known for much longer than that.  The government issued vouchers to ease the pain of buying the converter boxes, which, by the way, were artificially high priced.  I’m expecting the same boxes-the ones that were magically priced around the $40 mark, to come down a few months after the coupon program expires.  The Venturer boxes I got with the coupons probably are not worth more the thirty dollars, if that.  After all of the fuss that has been made over this transition, if people STILL do not have a converter box or a digital television, then I do not feel for them.  Yeah, I know there is a cost involved and there are people who, even with the coupon, still could not afford a box.  Those people, however, are probably a small slice of the 1.14 million who will lose reception in less than a week now.  I am sorry for them, but for the rest, no, I don’t have any sympathy for them.  Other than the aforementioned very low income people, the only folks who are truly going to miss out are those who do not live near a television market and will suffer from lack of signals.  I suspect they already have reception problems and their choices are limited. 

I admit, though, that I am skeptical of Nielsen’s numbers.  I suspect that the number is probably higher.  Like any sample, there is no good way to calculate an actual number without doing a census and, even then, I’ll bet thousands, or more, would be overlooked.

All is not doom and gloom, however.  The FCC approved a method for television stations to extend their reach by erecting, what amounts to, a small network of repeater stations.  These lower power stations will rebroadcast a stations signal, in a direction pattern, to increase the coverage area to either restore it to the pre-digital cutover area or provide coverage where there would be none.  The problem, though, is that stations who do this will have to blanket an area and could target specific regions.  They must provide uniform coverage or not do anything.  And this is also not a cheap deal either.  It cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For those who can get the digital signals, they will get far more channels than they previously got.  The FCC, in adopting the digital standard, have provided for several ‘sub channels’.  These sub channels, while not high definition, can carry full video and audio.  Many stations are utilizing these sub channels and there are several services that these stations can broadcast over the sub channels.  Fox’s ‘MyTV’, for instance, is carried on these sub channels as well as having full fledged broadcast affiliates.  Many stations dedicate at least one of the sub channels to broadcasting weather all day.  Others use one of the sub channels to broadcast news and a few treat the sub channel as a second station.  In the Richmond, VA market, for example, all of the stations except the ABC affiliate, utilize more than one sub channel.  One of them, our PBS affiliate, has something different on all three sub channels. One them carries news programming from all over the planet.  Watching Russian news is pretty interesting.  The broadcasts are all aimed at English speaking people, but have the local flavor and provide a different take on world events.  Our Fox station carries the MyTV netlet in the evening and something called ‘this!’ during the day.  Both the CBS and NBC stations carry weather all day on one sub channel.  The CBS station used to carry a music video service, but that ceased operations.  The potential for the sub channels is huge.  That they are still under utilized is puzzling.  I suspect, however, that that will change after the transition.  Imagine, in larger markets, it could be like having cable without the bill.  It just depends of the type of programming these stations put on the sub channels.  In a market like New York, where there is a dozen over the air stations, each station can have up to three sub channels. That’s at least 36 sub channels in addition to the primary signals.  That is better than what cable was just a few years ago. 

Of course, I’ve neglected talking about a large and growing number of people who just do not care about broadcast television and get their news and entertainment via the internet and DVD’s.  I know a few people who wait and buy the DVD release of a television show.  They buy the season boxed sets and watch them that way, without the commercials.  The internet has also brought a viable alternative to broadcast television.   Services like Hulu, YouTube and others provide programming that is also on broadcast television.  Hulu is owned by NBC and FOX TV.  It carries programming from NBC, FOX, CBS, Disney and others.  There is a decent library of both old and new series.  Movies are also starting to appear.  YouTube is also carrying programming from CBS and its library of old shows. All of the major networks also stream their programming, often with commercials. 

The internet has also made it much easier for people to put themselves on ‘the air’.  People in the tech industry seized the opportunity early on.  People like Chris Pirillo and Leo Laporte, both of which have broadcast television experience, have done their own thing.  Pirillo just broadcasts himself talking about all things tech while Laporte has, what amounts to, a legit little ‘network’ going on.  He has a slate of shows that all began as podcasts.  He added video to the mix and has a pretty interesting little station that has something for most people-tech wise, that is.  You won’t find movies or music videos on there, but you will find topics as diverse as science and Apple computers.  He streams his live shows and repeats them when he is not live.  Both Pirillo and Laporte hosted programming on the now defunct TechTV (also known as ZDTV) on cable.  When that channel ceased to exist, both went to the internet.  A search on Google or Bing will reveal quite a number of internet based stations.  You can find anything from old public domain movies and TV shows to science, computers, sex and music.  There are other ways of getting programming as well, but they are a gray area and I will discuss them.

June 12 is right around the corner-six days as of this writing.  Cheese factor alert:  the dawn of a new television era is here.  I hope you are ready.

Find out more about the transition:

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