DALLAS DTV: gorgeous pictures, CD quality sound; a long overdue successor to inefficient NTSC and digital Viagra for ageing receivers. But those ones and zeros can be frustratingly fragile to capture over-the-air without the right setup. We've all read "high altitude" reports about analog cut-off tests, but not much from ground level where the comprehension fog is thickest.
If my recent experiences are any indication, Feb. 18 will be an "interesting" day around the White House. Rabbit-ear wielding mobs won't storm the FCC, but don't underestimate the ire of aroused citizens deprived of their free, over-the-air soaps, sports and talk shows. The road to DTV has far too many potholes.
Despite all the print and on-air hoopla, a significant slice of population remains oblivious. A mid-October Nielsen Media Research report ranked my Dallas/Fort Worth backyard second among 10 least prepared DTV markets, just behind Houston, and slightly ahead of Los Angeles. Unsurprisingly, the least ready are lower income and households with a less educated or blue collar head-of-house; groups unlikely to troll-the-net for DTV tips. Not a good omen.
HELP AND REASSURANCE
Steve Krant That point was driven home dramatically when I pulled a DTV Hotline shift with the engineering team at WFAA-TV, Belo's ABC affiliate in Dallas, for an early December analog shut-off test. We fielded calls non-stop for nearly two hours—the envy of any PBS pledge drive—as viewers, some concerned, some confused; some angry, some techno-challenged and near-panic, reached out for help and reassurance.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV)—soon to be Commerce Committee chairman—in his proposal for a 30-day analog extension for emergency and DTV information noted that the nation isn't ready "without substantially more involvement from every level of government [and] the entire communications industry... when people are cut off from their televisions, it is not just a matter of convenience; it is a matter of public safety. This transition is going to hit our most vulnerable citizens—the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and those with language barriers—the hardest..."—the very same demos that swamped WFAA's lines, and I'm sure those of other proactive stations around the country.
Even the Government Accountability Office listed "an effective transition to DTV" among 13 urgent issues which "...if not dealt with [by the new administration], could have great implications for life, well being, or the confidence of citizens in government..."
As TV Technology readers, we're knowledgeable insiders; we "get" DTV. And we have tech wizards smarter than ourselves to call on for help. But what about average Joe-the-Whatever and Mini-Van Mom? I tried navigating the DTV maze as an everyday suburban civilian. For the broadband-connected and Web-savvy, there are numerous—perhaps too many—resources available. A fortunate few will find a knowledgeable retailer or Internet forum with the right answers and products for local reception. The rest will have to fend for themselves.
More than 60 converter boxes are NTIA "coupon-eligible," but their quality and functionality vary widely according to a mid-September report by the NAB and Association for Maximum Service Television.
I sampled several among the limited retail choices and found mediocre manuals, counter-intuitive remotes and confusing on-screen menus from the mostly unknown manufacturers. Where are the "real" TV companies hiding?
Set-top boxes are only part of the equation. "It's the antenna!" as consumer groups, the FCC, NAB, and other alphabet-soup groups are finally acknowledging. Stations have begun airing "Psst, bet you're gonna need a new antenna too!" PSAs. Unfortunately, the national big-box chain stores are less prepared to deal with antennas than set-top boxes, if my neighborhood outlets are typical. Many salespersons, assuming you can find one, try to be helpful but are untrained and clueless. "Does this antenna get VHF and UHF channels?" Answer, "Huh?" "Fer sure," or just a blank stare.
LACK OF INFORMATION
For the technically inclined, AntennaWeb.org gives precision advice based on street address relative to local transmitter sites and provides worst-case, often roof-top, antenna recommendations for best DTV reception. Unfortunately, it's difficult to find a decent assortment in stores or packaging that displays their antenna selection pie-chart. Those on shelves are mostly indoor types, placed out-of-sight (sometimes far from the converter boxes) and often lack printed specifications. Only Radio Shack, among the national chains, normally sells outdoor antennas. Curiously, the big warehouse clubs display dozens of HDTV models, but not a rabbit-ear or yagi in sight (or online).
Compounding the chaos, stations in some markets will switch digital channels and/or transmitter power post-transition. Here in Dallas, the strongest, highly rated analog station has the weakest, most elusive digital signal—the solo high-band V in a field of UHFs—despite everyone's towers being situated on a hilltop surrounded by flat terrain! Two other locals skip from UHF to VHF in February, though their EPG-displayed numbers won't change. So much for rewarding the early adopters; quick, call-up the help desk volunteers!
What's ahead? DTV is a serious challenge to already declining over-the-air viewership. Many will surrender in frustration to cable or satellite, others will lose favorite channels. OTA viewers will find themselves gradually shut-out from sports and entertainment as popular content migrates to pay-for-service carriers. The NAB has already cried "foul" over free-TV's loss of some major league sports to higher-dollar cable bids.
Conspiracy theorists can point to statements like this one in October from Michael Calabrese, a New America Foundation director and vigorous "white space" advocate, "[A second phase of the DTV transition should] take TV off-the-air in a few years... over-the-air broadcasts should be replaced entirely by cable, satellite and Internet viewing." Not so far fetched, perhaps, if digital reception problems chase the majority of viewers from free, over-the-air television.
Station owners are consolidating operations and morphing into multi-platform "content providers," little different than CNN, HBO or ESPN in competing for carriage and eyeballs on the common carrier delivery systems. Should "broadcasters" stop relying on the public's airwaves, will the FCC lose its public interest-based regulatory mandate? Is radio next on the agenda? Food for thought. Happy Holidays!