Final ThoughtDeath To The Calendar!

Almost six years after the FCC issued its digital terrestrial television (DTT) rules, less than 1% of U.S. television households are receiving the signals. Fewer than half the nation’s TV stations are transmitting DTT. Receivers cost too much, and there are complaints of reception problems. Most broadcasts are not HDTV. Valuable spectrum hasn’t been returned to the government.
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Almost six years after the FCC issued its digital terrestrial television (DTT) rules, less than 1% of U.S. television households are receiving the signals. Fewer than half the nation’s TV stations are transmitting DTT. Receivers cost too much, and there are complaints of reception problems. Most broadcasts are not HDTV. Valuable spectrum hasn’t been returned to the government.

It’s an outrage! Or is it?

Welcome to 2003. It’s now 50 years since 1953. That was when the FCC approved NTSC color.

The first DTT receivers appeared in 1998, a year after the FCC issued its rules; the first NTSC color receivers appeared in 1954, the year after the FCC adopted NTSC. The first DTT receivers were very expensive; the first NTSC color TV set was $1,295—when a brand new Ford cost $1,695.

Fortune told its readers that one in three U.S. homes (18 million) would have color TV sets by 1959, six years into the transition. In 1962, The New York Times noted that the million sets sold by that point “only slightly penetrate the market.” Perhaps it’s best to refrain from mentioning DTT-penetration predictions while the seers are still living.

It wasn’t until 1963, a full decade after the FCC chose NTSC color, that even 2,000 hours of color programming were broadcast. There are 8,760 hours per year, per channel.

In 1967, 14 years after the FCC adopted the NTSC color standard, IEEE Spectrum noted that NTSC might as well have stood for Never Twice the Same Color. Reception problems were considered so severe even then that few countries adopted the U.S. system.

Today, of course, close to 100% of U.S. households have color TV—more, according to some sources, than have radio, telephones, or even indoor plumbing. Today, almost every broadcast, cable, or satellite channel transmits all of its programming in color.

In some ways, the DTT transition is moving faster than NTSC color’s. More stations are transmitting DTT six years after the FCC rules than did NTSC color in the same time frame. More special DTT programming is available. Receivers are relatively less expensive. Reception is improving more rapidly.

So, what’s the problem? For reasons that defy logic, 2006 was said to mark the end of the DTT transition.

The FCC granted 772 extensions to commercial stations due on the air last May because that deadline was tough to meet. But it was child’s play compared to replacing hundreds of millions of TV sets and VCRs, many of them still being sold today at prices well under $100.

Between 25 and 30 million TV sets of all kinds are sold to U.S. dealers each year. Given that there are between 250 million and 300 million TV sets in use in U.S. homes, it would take a minimum of ten years to replace them all if analog set sales ceased immediately and 100% of DTT set sales were devoted to replacement and none to additions. That amount of time alone would have gone beyond 2006, even if every set sold starting in 1997 were DTT capable.

Unfortunately, neither cable boxes nor satellite receivers have 8-VSB outputs. So new TVs will need NTSC inputs for quite some time—either RF or baseband. A theoretical digital rights management problem.

As for the return of television spectrum, that’s been going on for years. When the UHF band was opened in 1952, it went from 14 to 83. Today, the highest channel available to be returned is 69, and the interference problems described here last month were due to public safety communications already occupying channel 20.
The transition to NTSC color took more than a quarter century. In the U.K., the transition from 405-line black-and-white to color-capable 625-line TV took 21 years. More than two decades after the introduction of the IBM PC, computers have yet to appear in two-thirds of U.S. households, not even counting the home computers that preceded it.

Forget 2006. Pretend you never heard of it. Transitions take time. Reception is improving. Costs are dropping. Programming is increasing. Spectrum was auctioned. Quit expecting magic. Why not relax and watch some TV?

Mark Schubin is an engineering consultant with a diverse range of clients, from the Metropolitan Opera to Sesame Workshop.