Analog: The Fat Lady Refuses to Sing!

Having missed the last couple of AES audio shows, it was good to spend some time catching up on the latest buzz in New York City. In fact, I enjoyed these passionate, creative audio folks so much I stayed an extra day just to muck around and hear their stories.
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Having missed the last couple of AES audio shows, it was good to spend some time catching up on the latest buzz in New York City. In fact, I enjoyed these passionate, creative audio folks so much I stayed an extra day just to muck around and hear their stories.

A key topic of my catch-up was the reappraisal by many top audio producers of early digital technology. Early meaning the first 30 years; that is nearly everything prior to a year or so ago. From what I heard, a lot of people feel they bought into a good bit of bad technology and the quality of recorded music in recent years has suffered. Attempts are now being made to fix it.

Thus the move to remaster classic analog records and make them available on formats like Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD), a generally admired high-resolution digital release format. The process involves going back to the analog masters, skipping over years of traditional digital processing.

One stunning example of this is the work that Greg Calbi, a top mastering engineer at Sterling Sound in New York City, did on 15 of Bob Dylan's classic albums. The new remastered versions from the analog originals to the SACD format are stunning improvements over the traditional CD releases we've heard for years.

IS DIGITAL BETTER?

As I listened, I could not escape the irony surrounding this circus we in television call "the DTV transition." Just as with audio, everything is based on the assumption that digital is better than the analog technology it is replacing. Ultimately, as with audio, that might be eventually so. But my gut tells me that the turbulence ahead for DTV is going to get much rougher than it has been.

Why? Because a lot of bad judgments -- made in the name of money or politics -- are accumulating fast on the back of DTV technology. I suspect the good old analog days are going to look much better for many of the viewers who were perfectly happy with conventional TV in the first place.

And, due to the fear of public retribution by members of Congress, analog TV is going to be with us a long, long time. Forget that talk of the government getting back the analog spectrum. Nobody in Congress has the guts to take it.

Remember what happened last year when Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La) tried to hold the broadcasters to a hard DTV deadline? His colleagues turned on him, reminding the gentleman from Cajun country about how early their collective retirement would come if they dare voted to end analog TV. Tauzin backed away fast, claiming the deadline idea had only been a suggestion.

CONSUMER REBELLION

Every smart politician I know says that you can bet on old-fashioned analog TV being left alone by Congress, DTV policy or rhetoric to the contrary. If any spectrum is given back to the government, I'd bet on it being digital before analog. Members of Congress are not in the business of starting a consumer rebellion.

Consumer rebellion? Yes, the one that might come when viewers find out a broadcast "flag" prevents them from recording a favorite show for later viewing. Or a block that prevents them from viewing a program on a separate device or computer in another location. Or a system that places layers of restrictions not yet even conceived on the portability of viewing.

After years of analog freedom, viewers are not going to take kindly to spending a lot of money on expensive new DTV equipment and then being told all the things they cannot do with it. The music revolution has taught us that we live in the age of portability-having access to any media any time at any place. Yes, Virginia, many folks will become very angry if the government allows any personal copy or playback restrictions to DTV.

THE KISS PRINCIPLE

And what about simplicity? Analog TV sets are among the easiest home appliances to operate. But DTV, viewers will find, is a different animal. Government officials in the UK recently warned that millions of people will be unable to access digital television there unless manufacturers make the receivers more user-friendly.

"Today's digital TV equipment is confusing and difficult to use, even for people who take to new technology quickly," warned Stephen Timms, the e-commerce minister in the United Kingdom. British-backed research on DTV ergonomics found that two million people -- about seven percent of the UK population -- would be unable to use current model DTV sets because they are too complicated, badly designed or "non-intuitive."

Now that a federal appeals court has backed the FCC's mandate requiring tuners in DTV sets, one wonders how many consumers will actually be able to receive a signal over the air. I can just see Michael Powell, the FCC's chairman, staging a photo-op for "free TV" by parading into a Radio Shack on a Saturday morning and then climbing to his roof-top for a two-hour, chimney-mounted antenna installation. Just like in the days of Ozzie and Harriet!

Most Americans, of course, will wonder why a tuner-a device most of us haven't used in over a decade-is required by law when more than 87 percent (CEA estimate) of the population now receives their television from a subscription service. One thing is certain: it's not about logic.

If anything, many viewers wonder why their local channels look so bad today over satellite and digital cable systems. They haven't yet discovered the pay TV industry's dirty little secret of compressing the local signals almost to the quality level of dial-up streaming media. Why are broadcasters not raising a stink about this practice, insisting their signal gets the same allotted bandwidth as ESPN and HBO? You got me. Better yet, do they care?

Well, the viewers do. One quality-conscious friend recently showed me a comparison of his off-air signal and his DirecTV signal of a major local station. Off-air reception was excellent, but the DirecTV signal looked like an ancient demonstration of compression technology gone berserk. When I explained this squeeze play, he asked why the local broadcasters are not up in arms about this. I suggested he pose the question to the owner of the station.

It's all enough to make one stick with good old tried-and-true analog TV. The sets are incredibly cheap, well-perfected and look real good with a decent digital signal. Full power, watchable analog signals are widely available in most neighborhoods for viewers who don't choose to watch cable and satellite. TiVos, DVRs, VCRs and other recording devices still work on the terms of the viewer-not the entertainment conglomerates.

Just as with audio, it's premature to write-off analog TV technology. As NTSC color television turns 50 early next year, let's raise a toast. Analog TV has served us well-and if DTV continues its current course, it may continue to do so for a long, long time to come.