A Decade Later

The “D” word. Today in our industry, D stands for “Disruption.” Ten years ago, “the D word” meant something else to U.S. television broadcasters.

No, I’m not talking about “Digital”—I’m talking about “Dread.”

On June 12, 2009, broadcasters took the big step that had caused so much consternation and fear since it had been proposed several decades before—the industry shut down its analog signals after more than 60 years of broadcasting in the U.S. Digital was now the norm.

I think I can speak for my other fellow journalists when I say that, despite all the angst, we loved covering the DTV transition because it created so much of another “D” word: Drama.

The original shutoff date was Dec. 31, 2006. I remember it well because of a warning from one Congressman who feared the worst when viewers realized that they would lose TV the way it always was.

“If we impose a strict, hard return of spectrum of December 31, 2006, one can be sure that we will all be impeached on January 1, 2007,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY).

Clearly the industry wasn’t ready by then and it’s hard to say whose feet got colder: broadcasters or the government, (and more specifically the FCC).

Realizing this, in 2005, Congress moved the deadline to February 2009. A number of problems were still unresolved, in particular, issues over how the controversial converter box program was being handled, so the deadline was moved to June, (when it was more likely that Congress would be on break, natch).

So as the industry held its collective breath and at midnight on the evening of Friday, June 12, 2009, the end came for analog TV in the U.S.

The transition went better than expected. Yes, stations, particularly along the urban areas on the east coast lost viewers as they moved from UHF to VHF and a number of consumers still hadn’t gotten the word despite millions of dollars in public education campaigns.

The total cost of the government’s share of the transition ended up nearly $3 billion. During the first week after the shutoff, the FCC logged nearly 900,000 calls to a DTV hotline it had set up to respond to complaints and concerns. A month later, Nielsen reported that 98.9% of U.S. homes were able to receive a digital signal.

Was it worth the expense? There was very little debate that the industry had to go digital—with increasing pressure from the wireless industry over spectrum availability, broadcasters’ hands were forced to make the transition.

Rick Ducey, managing director at BIA Advisory Services, had the unique perspective of looking at the transition from several sides—first as the senior vice president of research and info group at the NAB and then as an advisor to broadcast stations when he moved to BIA nearly 20 years ago.

Ducey helped establish Spectra Rep two decades ago to take advantage of the datacasting capabilities of digital television.

“We wanted to see if there was a way to monetize the new capabilities of the digital infrastructure,” he said. Based in Chantilly, Spectra Rep today works with public broadcasters to use datacasting enabled by DTV for public safety operations.

As a long-time contributor to TV Technology, Doug Lung had a front seat to the transition, chronicling the progress of the transition from when the first DTV station went on air in 1996 to today.

Lung’s assessment of how the industry has fared in the decade since can probably be described as a “glass half-full” approach.

“Once TV stations boosted their power [many had minimal facilities prior to the cut-over] and the quality of TV sets tuners improved, interest in over the air TV rose,” he said.

Lung commented that some of the transmitters used for increased power after analog was shut down were converted analog transmitters, but that the work surrounding the current channel realignment, prompted by the 2017 spectrum auctions provides new upgrade opportunities.

“The repack is giving us the opportunity to replace these ancient transmitters with more modern transmitters with solid state amplifiers and a relatively easy conversion to ATSC 3.0,” he said.

Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is at the forefront of the transition to ATSC 3.0, was a prominent opponent of the 8-VSB modulation standard and spent numerous hours on Capitol Hill and in the halls of the FCC pressing their case for using COFDM, which they said was better at handling mobile reception.

Now with ATSC 3.0 adopting the OFDM scheme, Mark Aitken, vice president of advanced technology for Sinclair and president of ONE Media, couldn’t help but feel vindicated.

“We actually hate having to be the folks that were right,” he said, adding that the “lessons learned” about the transition include the importance of mobility, IP and maximizing broadcasters’ use of their spectrum.

Today, ATSC is focused on what is perhaps even a bigger transition to 3.0 and an IP and mobile future designed to compete with telcos. Madeleine Noland, the new president of the association hailed the benefits of ATSC 1.0, including enhanced HD picture quality, improved sound and advanced closed captioning features, to name a few.

“The 10 year anniversary of the analog shutoff shines a light on one of the major milestones in the history of terrestrial broadcasting, and we look forward to many more with the bright future of ATSC 3.0 ahead of us.”

So do we.

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched digitalbroadcasting.com for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (www.tvtech.com), the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.