Three Long Years: Laws Can Be Changed

Both houses of Congress have approved an analog-TV broadcast-cutoff date of February 18, 2009. As this is being written, TV-unrelated provisions of the legislation have kept it from leaving Capitol Hill, but the date isn’t expected to change—at least not yet. A law passed in 1997 called for analog cutoff on December 31, 2006. Laws can be changed.

Even if the new date becomes law, it will not affect television broadcast station equipment purchases or installation. All U.S. TV stations were required to transmit digitally by May 1, 2003; none are yet required to transmit HDTV, 5.1-channel audio or multicasting. Nevertheless, the new date could affect the viability of TV broadcasting.

Estimates of U.S. television households relying exclusively on off-air reception today range roughly from 12% to 22%. Satellite-subscriber growth should continually reduce those figures as should new telephone company-provided TV services. And the so-called “tuner mandate” will ensure that ever more households have off-air access to digital-TV broadcasts by 2009. So broadcast-TV audience loss at analog cutoff would seem insignificant—until closer examination.

Consider the mandated digital-reception circuitry in TVs. Since July 1 of last year, 100% of new TVs 36-inch or larger built in or imported to the U.S. were to include it. But a survey of newspaper ads the first week of this year found only 69% of listed models in that size range had digital-reception circuitry. There doesn’t seem to be any penalty for manufacturers or importers violating the mandate.

Digital reception, of course, can provide near-perfect pictures and sounds—or nothing. Viewers of even digital-reception-equipped TVs currently relying on mediocre analog reception may find they need improved antenna systems when analog-TV signals disappear.

That applies only to the small percentage of viewers relying exclusively on off-air reception—or does it? A very large percentage of satellite viewers also receive broadcast-TV programming off-air, and even those receiving local broadcasts via satellite might not get all digital stations. DirecTV recently began offering digital broadcasts from the New York market; they offer just four digital stations where 21 are currently on the air.

Then there’s cable. Last month, the newspaper for a town on the edge of the Birmingham, AL television market reported on the local cable operator’s heroic efforts to get the signals of a nearby Mississippi station so subscribers could watch an Alabama football game carried by a no-longer-receivable Birmingham station that had gone all digital. According to Demopolis CATV owner Lynn Goldman, “The digital channels won’t reach as far.”

Perhaps that was a case of (analog) VHF versus (digital) UHF or of the station’s power level not yet being maximized. Aside from cable systems’ reception, however, there’s another cable-related issue.

The original 2005 analog cutoff legislation included provisions allowing all cable operators to carry both analog and digital versions of digital broadcasts and smaller cable systems (with capacities of 550 MHz or less) to carry just analog versions (though they were to be permitted to carry digital, too). Approved conversions from digital to analog were permitted “at any location, from the cable head-end to the customer premises, inclusive.” That would seem to include cable-operator-provided set-top boxes.

Those analog conversion and analog carriage provisions were removed from the final bill, still awaiting approval as this is being written. According to at least some cable operators, that means they will not be permitted to offer analog versions of digital broadcasts after the analog cutoff date.

If their interpretation of the legislation is correct and the removed language is taken as a guide, then only owners of digital cable-ready TVs or adapters would be able to watch digital broadcasts via cable. That would probably leave a majority of any broadcaster’s audience without access to station programming after analog cutoff.

Of course, that interpretation of the legislation may well prove to be wrong, and some legislators have already promised to fix the problem (if it exists) with a new law. It’s also possible that the legislation currently stuck in Congress will not be approved or that, after it becomes law, it will be changed, just as the 1997 law was.

It’s possible that digital-TV reception equipment will become so inexpensive and so good over the next three years and that digital cable-readiness will become so widespread that broadcasters will have nothing to fear by 2009. All those things are possible.

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