A few weeks ago, Washington woke up and realized that February 17, 2009 was less than two years away. This wouldn't matter except that it's the day the government has chosen to be the end of analog television.
What does this mean? It depends how you get your television:
Satellite Subscriber (DirecTV and Dish) — these signals are already digital and you already have a digital set-top box that converts the signal so you can watch it on your old TV set. As of now, you will probably not notice a change and probably won't have to do anything.
Digital Cable & Telephone IPTV Subscribers (Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Cablevision, Verizon, AT&T, etc.) — same as above. You probably won't have to do anything different. Analog Cable Subscribers — The latest FCC rule, adopted on September 11, 2007, will allow continued access to local stations for cable customers (including those with standard analog cable service) following the transition to digital TV in 2009. This rule applies only to local television stations, not cable networks or premium cable channels and the rule expires in 2012. At that time, you will need digital cable or another solution.
Antenna-only Households — if you use an antenna to receive your television signals and enjoy free over-the-air television, on February 17, 2009 you will have four options:
Option 1 – Obtain (either with a government issued voucher or with cash) a digital-to-analog (DA) for each of your existing NTSC (National Standards Television Committee) analog television sets. They should cost about $40 each.
What are NTSC analog television sets and how do you know if you have them? It's easy! If your TV has a picture tube there is a 99.9% probability that it is an analog TV. There are a few digital sets with picture tubes floating around and even a few HDTV sets with picture tubes. If you own one, you probably know you own one and you probably also know whether or not it has a digital tuner.
If you purchased a TV set after March 1, 2006 with a picture tube over 27" diagonal, it should have a built-in ATSC (Advanced Systems Television Committee) digital television tuner. This was an FCC rule, but it has not been properly policed. They have cracked down considerably this year.
Option 2 – Buy new ATSC digital compatible television. There are 18 formats of digital television and not all of them are HDTV (High Definition Television). Just to torture you — all HDTV sets are digital, BUT all digital television sets are not HDTVs.
Option 3 – Call your local cable television company, local telephone company (if they offer television) or your favorite satellite provider and get set-top boxes for all the TV sets in your home you wish to watch past February 17, 2009.
Option 4 – Forget about television. Throw away the old sets and consume your media on your computer, phone, PDA and other alternative devices.
Sound complicated? You bet. And Congress and the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) know it. This week the NAB said that broadcasters will spend $697 million getting the word out. The estimate was based on data from Nielsen.
"Local broadcasters deserve a heaping of praise for their good work in telling Americans about the coming transition to digital TV," said Congressman Fred Upton, ranking Republican (Michigan) on the House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee. "It's especially good to see how they understand that a seamless switch in February of 2009 can only happen if millions of TV viewers each know what's happening and why."
Of course local broadcasters understand what's going to happen on February 17, 2009 — they're likely to lose a huge chunk of their antenna-only viewers. Of course they want to help educate the public — antenna-only households dramatically over-index for network shows and artificially inflated ratings help the business.
If you like disaster scenarios, I have one for you. 2009 is not an election year and it is not an Olympic year. The end of analog TV is scheduled to occur in the middle of February Sweeps (the first television ratings book of the year). With millions of antenna-only households gone missing, what will the May Sweeps look like? No political cash, no Olympic cash and, due to missing antenna-only viewers, a measurable ratings decline in households that over-index to the four major networks. Ahhh — your tax dollars at work.
About the Author: Shelly Palmer is Managing Director of Advanced Media Ventures Group LLC and the author of Television Disrupted: The Transition from Network to Networked TV (2006, Focal Press). Shelly is also the 1st vice president of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, NY and Chairman of the Advanced Media Committee of the Emmy Awards. You can read Shelly's blog at http://www.emmyadvancedmedia.com. Shelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.