The government, broadcasters, cable and the consumer electronics industry all deserve congratuations for the success of today’s move from analog TV transmission to digital. The move, while offering sharper, prettier pictures, does so much more. And the biggest advantage may be yet to come: mobile broadcasting.
Back in those happy days of the Clinton administration before anybody outside of the West Wing had heard of Monica, the FCC adopted a plan for the DTV transition.
And here’s the amazing part: it worked.
With the clock ticking down the last hours of the transition, the government and TV broadcasters can congratulate themselves for a job well done.
By moving broadcast TV from analog to digital, the FCC recovered a ton of spectrum, set some aside for public safety and auctioned off the rest for $20 billion to wireless companies that will bring new services to the public.
TV stations, meanwhile, spent billions to build digital transmission facilities and introduce HDTV, which lived up to all its hype and then some. Without the broadcasters’ supplying the impetus, HDTV would still be out there somewhere with 3-D TV.
And thanks to vision of Reed Hundt, the FCC chairman at the time the plan was adopted in April 1997, DTV can be more than HDTV. Stations have the freedom to offer all kinds of services over their digital channels.
Some broadcasters are offering second and third standard-definition programming. Gray Television, for instance, is broadcasting MNT or CW or both on the digital subchannels of many of its TV stations. Other stations are adding startups networks like Mexicanal, .2, This TV and RTN.
But the exciting digital play is mobile.
Through the Open Mobile Video Coalition, broadcasters encouraged the quick development of a standard that will allow them to use a small portion of their digital channels to extend their reach outside the home for the first time, to on-the-go consumers with laptops, cellphones and other handheld gizmos. And unlike HDTV, mobile DTV may generate extra revenue.
Admittedly, there were some wrong turns. Remember Geocast? It would use digital spectrum to blast data to computers at high speeds. It seemed to make sense in 1999 when most Americans were accessing the Internet with low-speed dial-up modems. But it was a one-way service in a two-way world with better broadband options on the way.
And then there was USDTV. It proposed using digital spectrum to offer a subscription-supported wireless cable service. It failed, but another outfit, Sezmi, has picked up the idea and, with better technology, still hopes to make it happen.
With big assists from the NTIA and the consumer electronics and cable industries, the FCC and broadcasters have also been able to prepare the country for the shut-off of analog service. For most Americans, the analog shut-off will be a non-event, Y2K revisited.
According to one recent survey, only about two million homes out of 114 million — that’s 1.8 percent — may lose service today.
In this country, I really don’t think you could do much better. You just can’t reach or motivate some people. I’d bet that 1.8 percent of the population cannot tell you who the president of the United States is.
The only danger is if the Stanley Cup final goes into triple overtime and the Penguins and Red Wings are still on the ice at the stroke of midnight. There could trouble in Pittsburgh and Detroit. Whoever came up with June 12 does not know what icing is.
After a concerned Congress pushed the DTV deadline from Feb. 17 to June 12, Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps took charge of the transition or, as Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) more colorfully put it, he “appeared on the scene to quarterback the late-game comeback drive to digital.”
Suddenly, things started to happen. When analog turns to snow today, some 4,000 people will be manning the FCC hotline to field the calls and thousands of others will be available to explain what’s happening at walk-in centers or to actually go to homes and hook up converter boxes and antennas.
Of course, it helped that Congress opened the doors to the treasury so that Copps could pay for all the hired help.
Congress and the NTIA also worked out problems in the $2 billion converter box discount program. Consumers that want the $40 coupons can now get them without long delays. The consumer electronics industry delivered on its promise of having converter boxes on store shelves.
Broadcasters will also be manning phones and helping out with hookups over the weekend. But their major contribution has been on awareness, pounding home the DTV message in countless PSAs, graphics and news stories.
The NAB did a great job supporting its members and complementing the stations’ efforts with its own. The NAB’s ad hoc DTV taskforce and media relations department has kept DTV front and center in the consumer media for nearly two years. It’s a bright spot on David Rehr’s NAB résumé.
I count myself among the skeptics who believe the government can never get anything quite right and that its attempts to work with industry are more likely than not to go awry.
But not today.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck.com. He can be contacted at [email protected].