The Clock Is Ticking - Broadcasting & Cable

The Clock Is Ticking

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Feb. 17, 2009—just under a year from now—will be the last day of analog television. The next day, analog sets will be useless for over-the-air reception of most full-power TV stations unless their owners have a cable or satellite converter box.

Viewers who get television over the air—antenna on the roof, rabbit ears on the console—will flick on their sets and see virtually nothing, unless they have previously applied for and received a government-issued coupon or bought a box on their own. That coupon gives them $40 toward purchasing a converter box from an appliance store. True, for the vast majority of viewers, the analog-to-digital switch will be a non-event because they already have a set-top box that will solve the problem. According to some estimates, “only” 13 million TV households get television the old-fashioned way. If you are one of them and you are elderly, or if English isn't your native tongue, or if you watch low-power stations and don't have the right kind of converter box, the analog turn-off is sure to be a challenge.

The National Telecommunications Information Agency (NTIA) publicity campaign is woefully underfunded by the government. Aid from all over the TV industry will help. But on Feb. 18, 2009, millions of Americans could start lighting up Capitol Hill switchboards, if only because no program can be administered with 100% efficiency if the goal is satisfying 300 million people living in 113 million TV households.

For one easy example of the complications, consider the “cliff effect.” Currently, households not served by cable or satellite that are located far from a station's antenna may get a snowy picture. When digital arrives, they will get nothing—no picture. That is the digital cliff effect, and while it won't affect many people, it could baffle and/or anger people who are affected.

Feb. 18, 2009, is destined to be a headache for broadcasters and likely the first new domestic crisis to be faced by the next president of the United States. The Y2K scare at the turn of the 21st century was averted in part because companies took precautions or hired consultants to make the repair. This technological fix depends on average folks all over America. That's a much tougher nut.

NTIA has $5 million to publicize the change, and the FCC, if it's lucky, $22.5 million, $20 million of which doesn't come available until this fall, when the switch is just a few months away. At the same time, the government is about to reap $20 billion from the sale of the analog spectrum to wireless operators—twice what was anticipated. More of that should be used to jump-start a truly aggressive conversion campaign. Avoiding confusion now will be far less expensive and disruptive than trying to fix the problem later.