After years of planning, delays, and budget problems, the digital television transition officially begins Tuesday. One day down, 114 to go. Congress voted to postpone the DTV deadline until June 12. But many stations, fed up with delays or locked into agreements, are sticking to the old date.
This trickle effect marks the latest confusion over the multimillion-dollar transition campaign. The 10 to 20 million households affected by the changeover – i.e., homes with old TVs that rely on antennas – now have several months of staggered programing, with some channels broadcasting as normal and others going all digital.
NBC, CBS, and ABC promised to hold off their transition until June. But, as Reuters points out, "the networks own only about 100 of the 1,800 or so broadcast television stations in the United States, according to an industry group, and 421 already will have stopped broadcasting in analog signals, or will by next week, the Federal Communications Commission said Monday."
The silver lining: When congress delayed the cutoff date until June, it offered tens of millions dollars to kick-start the DTV converter-box coupon program. The government announced last month that it ran out of money to fund the $40 vouchers. Now, President Obama's stimulus plan will provide enough cash to cross off all 2.4 million households stuck on the waiting list. The new coupons should arrive in two to three weeks.
As the Monitor reported before, even if the millions of households that have analog TVs buy the new digital boxes, some will receive worse service, or no signal at all. The Monitor’s technology columnist discovered that:
The first thing you need to know about a digital TV signal is that you either get it, or you don’t. Unlike analog TV, which still produces a fuzzy picture if reception is poor, digital gives you all or nothing. The moment the signal drops below a certain level, the set goes black. The TV industry has an interesting way to describe this: “falling off a cliff.” No kidding.
Discovery two: A digital signal is affected by practically everything – where your TV set is located in your house, the walls in your house, the number of trees in your yard, how close it is to other electronic devices, birds migrating south in the fall. No kidding. A Washington Post story described how a woman who lived on the 20th floor of an apartment building would lose her signal for a few moments every time a plane landed or took off from Reagan National airport.
My third finding: Indoor antennas are almost useless when it comes to digital signals. Oh, if you live in the right place, have no criminal record, and go to church every Sunday, you might get the entire broadcast spectrum. But chances are you’ll end up like me.
So, if your TV relies on an antenna, spend the next four months reading up on how the DTV switch will affect you. And, if all else fails, consider switching to cable or satellite TV, which will be unaffected by the transition in June. Or, forget the tube and turn to Netflix, hulu.com, and the bevy of TV-network websites that now stream shows the day after they air. These solutions won’t be perfect, especially for the poor and rural families that Congress is concerned about reaching.
Without doubt, the road to digital television has been far bumpier than many of us had imagined.