Walking the DTV Transition

As I walked the floor at this week’s NAB Show, I noticed few cues that a major change in broadcasting was coming in less than a year. Indeed, looking at the transmitter displays you might have thought the DTV transition has already been completed! I wasn’t surprised by the lack of analog transmitters, but I was surprised by the lack of products specifically for the transition. Due to meetings and the interesting papers this year, I’m sure I missed some booths. However except for the “AFD Ready” initiative to ensure receivers can properly downconvert 16:9 programming for display on 4:3 displays, I didn’t see many products focused on the DTV transition.

At the start of the week there was a rumor that a major broadcasting company was advising its stations not to dismantle its analog equipment right after the transition because Congress might want to turn analog back on if the DTV transition fails. This is troubling on several levels. As most readers recognize, the DTV transition is a very complex process and reversing it would not be easy, as it would require stations to return to non-core channels, which have already been sold at auction or assigned for public safety use. Also, some broadcasters will, to some extent, have to reduce their analog facilities to complete the transition. Finally, since the Feb. 17, 2009, date was agreed on, broadcasters have not invested in the equipment needed to maintain reliable analog service past the date. Indeed, several stations have already ceased analog broadcasting. While I’m sure there will be disruption, especially in communities where more viewers, especially minority viewers, depend on over-the-air reception, I don’t see the effect being strong enough to cause Congress to reverse the transition and swallow the impact on the budget and ignore the needs of public safety for more spectrum.

The good news is none of the broadcasters I talked to indicated they would not be able to make the Feb. 17, 2009, deadline. The bad news comes from reports that big box retailers are not supporting the DTV transition. I visited one big box store in Los Angeles the Friday before the NAB Show and while there was a shelf for DTV converter boxes, I didn’t see a single one on display anywhere on the floor. One engineer told me that when he visited one of the major electronics retailers to buy a DTV converter box, he was told he’d need a huge outdoor antenna and that even with that he’d only be able to get two channels. The salesperson held to this story even after the engineer told him he worked for one of the major stations in the market and this simply wasn’t true.

Thanks to the many “RF Report” readers that have e-mailed me your comments and observations. If you have time this weekend or next week, stop by one of your big box retailers and ask them about DTV converter boxes. I, and other “RF Report” readers, will be very interested in hearing what you find!