February 17 Is Coming! (Just Past February 16)

You might not have noticed that Feb. 17 is going to be a good day to celebrate TV technology. But it ain't a day most of us are going to have to do anything different with that there technology.
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You might not have noticed that Feb. 17 is going to be a good day to celebrate TV technology. But it ain't a day most of us are going to have to do anything different with that there technology.

As for the celebrations, you could start with the anniversary of Pope Pius XII naming St. Clare of Assisi as the patron saint of television in 1958. Nellie, my last remaining neuron, and I slaved away for entire seconds coming up with this list of other stuff that happened on Feb.17:

It's the birthday of celebrities Kelly Carlson, Janice Dickinson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Paris Hilton, Michael Jordan, Mary Ann Mobley, Huey Newton, Lou Diamond Phillips, Denise Richards, Rene Russo, Montgomery Ward, Dame Edna, and Larry the Cable Guy, and they've all appeared on TV.

In 1995, it was the date of the 11th Soap Opera Digest Awards. In 1955, KTVF went on the air in Fairbanks, Alaska. In 1958, WETV started transmitting public television in Atlanta, and, in 1964, WMEM did the same in Presque Isle, Maine. In 1938, John Logie Baird demonstrated color TV to the public in London.

ANALOG SHUTDOWN

There's also something you might have heard of about an analog shutdown. Now then, that doesn't mean analog TVs are being turned off. Nope. All the analog TVs connected to cable, satellite, telco IPTV, video games, DVD players, and stuff like that there will work the same as they did on Feb. 16 (which is when daily TV newsreel broadcasts started in 1948).

As for analog TV broadcasts received over the air via antenna, in every country of the world other than the United States of America, nothing special is going to happen on Feb. 17, and that includes border broadcasters in Canada and Mexico. In Wilmington, N.C., nothing's going to happen. In any market, Class A and other low-power analog broadcasts can continue into Feb. 18 (when something named Pluto, which we used to call a planet, was discovered in 1930) and beyond.

If you're a full-power, U.S. TV broadcaster who hasn't yet shut down analog transmission, you can bust out the champagne to celebrate a mandatory reduction in your power bill starting at midnight that night (assuming a bizarre bill in the Senate to delay things for a whole whopping month doesn't become law). A bunch of us will have to do some fancy footwork changing frequencies for our digital transmissions, but even that group can still celebrate the energy savings. Yes, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate on Feb. 17.

What there ain't next Feb. 17 is a requirement to do anything digital, high definition, surround sound, widescreen, or anything like that there. Allow me and my poor, overworked neuron, Nellie, to take a crack at explaining why not.

DIGITAL DEADLINE?

First there's that digital-transmission bit (okay, more like 19.4 million of those bits per second). Some stations started transmitting that way in 1996. A bunch of others were required to transmit that way in 1999. Most of us had to do it by 2002, and all of us were supposed to do it by May of 2003.

Yes, I know that not all of us made that deadline, for solid reasons and weak ones, but that was the deadline. There is no deadline for transmitting digitally next Feb. 17. Zip. Zilch. Zero. None. Analog might go bye-bye (see all the above exceptions), but digital surely ain't starting then.

Okay. So much for digital TV starting on Feb. 17 of next year. How about that other stuff?

I hate to pop anyone's balloon, but digital TV just ain't the same thing as HDTV. Our Beloved Commish said as much back in 1997: "The commission will not require broadcasters to air 'high-definition programming.'" They also don't care about widescreen, surround sound, multicasting, nor most of the other wonders of the digital age. Yes, you've got to transmit dialnorm audio metadata; no, you're not required to transmit any subchannels. And you've had to deal with that dialnorm since you started transmitting digitally, and, (not that I want to beat a dead horse, or a live one, for that matter), the very last deadline for transmitting digitally was back in 2003.

Now then, none of this means there ain't things we ought to be doing before Feb. 17 rolls around. Wilmington was pretty instructive.

LESSONS LEARNED FROM WILMINGTON

Some folks didn't know they needed digital adapters. Some didn't know they needed antennas. Some didn't know they needed to hook the adapters to their TVs. One whole heck of a lot of them didn't know how to use the adapters. Oh, and by the way, in a place where some folks rely on portable TVs for hurricane info (on account of some local radio stations forgetting to do things like run local news), there didn't seem to be any portable digital TVs or adapters.

This here publication is called TV Technology, not TV Station Technology, so, if you're reading this, and you work in the TV-receiver-making business, you might study that last sentence a bit. But, unless you've just returned from a vacation on Mars, you've probably already heard the screaming from Washington on that little point.

As for those of us who do work at TV stations that are going to pull the analog plug on Feb. 17, maybe some education would be a good idea. I hear tell that in Wilmington some FCC staffers were helping set up digital receivers. Methinks that workforce won't be available to the rest of us.

Go forth and survey the marketplace. Print up batches of instructions. Instruct those who answer the phones. Post Web pages. Promote your current DTV transmissions. Actively prepare for what might be an onslaught of angry phone calls.

As for the print-shop bills, just submit them to the bean counters with a note explaining the costs are related to the start of digital transmission coming up on Feb. 17. The truth is tougher.

Mario Orazio is the pseudonym of a well-known television engineer who wishes to remain anonymous. E-mail him at morazio@nbmedia.com.