February 17, 2008 [LINK / comment]
D (as in digital)-Day minus 366
Exactly one year from today,* on February 17, 2009, broadcast television as we know it will come to an end. Ready or not, the era of digital TV is at hand, so I have added a countdown feature on the Science & Technology blog page. For the past couple months, TV stations have been preparing their viewers for the jarring transition with brief informative spots, calling attention to the www.dtvanswers.com Web site.
* (including an extra day for leap year)
To ease the burden of switching to the new technology, Congress appropriated funds so that any American, regardless of need, can request a coupon worth $50 toward the purchase of a digital converter box. That is only necessary for those who have older television sets and don't want to purchase one of the new flat-screen models. In December 2005, George Will poked fun at this (then-proposed) government subsidy by calling it the "No Couch Potato Left Behind Act."
One advantage of digital broadcasting is that you can squeeze more signal into a given bandwidth, which means that most stations will have two or three "subsidiary" TV stations. There is little doubt that the digital conversion is necessary, and it would have led to total chaos if they had tried to preserve analog broadcasting along with digital, so the mandate from Washington is probably for the best. Still, I have some qualms about what the future holds, such as:
- Will there be greater disparity in terms of the quality of TV broadcasts. I have already noticed that shows on some of the "subsidiary" TV stations (e.g., "MyValley," "CW," etc.) are terribly pixelated, like the kind of image you get on a video CD when there is rapid motion.
- Will cable TV providers make the transition as swiftly as the broadcasters are required to do, and will they take advantage of the situation by trying to force their customers to buy converter boxes? (That should not be necessary.)
- Will current broadcasters use their allotted subfrequencies for anything that is remotely edifying, or will there just be more and more "informercials"?
- Will there be any "pirate" analog broadcasters who cater to "Luddites" in the back-hills regions?
- Given that junking electronic equipment creates highly toxic waste in our landfills, will the cost of proper disposal of the many thousand obsolete television sets be borne by the broadcasters and equipment manufacturers, or will poor people be tempted to just toss them by the roadside?