Archive for February, 2009

The Long Goodbye to Analog TV

February 18, 2009

February 17th was supposed to be the day when all of America’s 1,600+ broadcast TV stations flipped the switch to kill analog TV broadcasting.  The new era was supposed to arrive in one historic moment. 



But like the long history of Digital TV in the United States, analog has one more turn around the track — a four month commutation of its death sentence.  Some 400 TV stations are signing off, anyway, just like they used to do in the old days. 



(Anyone else remember when Channel 13 in Indianapolis would end their evening news by “beaming aboard” the Starship Enterprise, air a re-run of STAR TREK, and then play the National Anthem and go to color bars before turning off the transmitter for the night?)


Long have many of us labored in the Digital TV vineyard.  And it’s been a rocky ride for Digital TV since the transition first began.

 Any government-mandated change will, by nature, be a series of compromises.  That’s certainly the history of Digital TV in the USA.   

It wasn’t like the old days – when RCA developed a standard for black-and-white, and then color TV, and the government approved it.  More voices were at the table.  


March 2001:  Telling Congress that this Digital TV stuff is expensive!

March 2001: Telling Congress that this Digital TV stuff is expensive!

Computer companies wanted a piece of the action.  Broadcasters and Cable operators used the transition as a jousting match.  Government – ever responsive to squeaky wheels – first mulled over the idea of “needs based” converters, or distributing converters at post offices.  But Retailers wanted to see those consumers in stores.  TV manufacturers wanted the latitude of developing products that would appeal to different market segments, but the Government mandated various features and functions.  Fingers were pointed.  Studies were done of distant European capitals that had managed transitions that took years to accomplish. 


Wireless companies lusted over the prospect of radio spectrum ideal for traveling long distances and penetrating buildings.  President Clinton salivated over the planned $70 billion spectrum auction that his administration used to “balance the budget” (in reality, the auction proceeds were less than one-third of this amount.)  Hollywood saw a new opportunity to monetize film vaults with DVD, which drove the initial transition to digital TV. 


The first high-definition TV demonstrations in the modern era occurred in the House Commerce Committee in 1987. 


I saw my first demo of a Japanese HDTV system at the Washington Hilton (where President Reagan was shot) a year later.  I ran demonstrations on Capitol Hill a decade or so after that. 


Many of us wondered how long it would take for consumers to embrace HDTV – not as the exclusive domain of the ultra-rich, but as a technology that everyone could enjoy.  More than 35 million digital TV sets will be sold this year –nearly 100,000 a day (if sales were evenly distributed and there wasn’t a rush for the Super Bowl, Father’s Day, or Christmas!)  That moment is finally here. 


And as soon as we can get everyone on board with a converter box, we can turn out the lights on the TV system that has served our country well since it was first lit up with the New Year’s Day Rose Bowl Parade telecast of 1954. 




First Color TV Broadcast:  Rose Bowl Parade 1954

First Color TV Broadcast: Rose Bowl Parade 1954