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The original DTV transition: what could've been

Darren Murph

Exactly one year ago today, we sat as prepared as ever to embrace the forthcoming world of digital TV. After February 17th, no longer would Americans have to suffer through yet another poor analog broadcast, and no longer would we have to wait for all that spectrum to be freed up for much more spectacular things. With just a year to go, we laid out a simple six-step program that would help confused TV watchers ensure that they would be ready on the seventeenth day of February, the year two-thousand and nine. Fast forward to this very moment, and confusion about the cutover is still rampant. In fact, the cutover hasn't even happened. Well, it sort of has. Ahh... see what we mean? Come along after the break, it gets crazier.

You see, America's shift from analog over-the-air (OTA) broadcasting has been in the works for over a decade, with the supposedly rock solid February 17th transition date in stone for well over three years. A recent Washington Post report asserts that the US federal government has spent around $2 billion (billion, with a b) in order to help people prepare, and particularly over the past six months, it was difficult to watch two segments of the local news without getting blasted with a low-rate "Are you ready?!" commercial. On top of the previously mentioned chunk of change, broadcasters also dropped a staggering $1.2 billion in order to provide adequate PSAs and to purchase new equipment suitable for digital transmission.

So, why are we sitting around on February 17, 2009, with only a select few stations broadcasting in all digital? Or, maybe the better question is: why isn't every station broadcasting in all-digital? Just as the new year dawned, the government realized that the funding bucket it had established to provide $40 TV converter box vouchers had run dry -- and sure enough, it knew this disastrous day was likely coming. Right on cue, procrastinators began to make all sorts of racket, complaining that they didn't have enough time to apply for a coupon or that it was simply their God-given right to watch TV. Whatever the case, Barack Obama and his administration were dead-set on delaying this thing, presumably in an attempt to secure even more funds out of the thin night air to make sure the "millions" still "unprepared" would be ready to rock 'n roll when the transition actually, finally happened.

And so, the hemming and hawing in Congress began. At first, everyone and their third cousin twice removed expected this delay -- from February 17th to June 12th -- to fly through with no questions asked. On the contrary, it was flat stopped by the House of Representatives by completely sane individuals who realized that delaying the inevitable was, well, unintelligent. Of course, the matter couldn't just be left alone, and somehow or another, the bill was allowed to ride again -- this time garnering enough votes to shuttle it all the way through onto President Obama's desk.

Where do we stand today? Who knows, really? The official stance is that the mandatory digital TV transition has been bumped until June 12th, but a curious provision was included in the bill that enabled stations to go ahead with their long (long!) scheduled cutover if they chose. Remember, serious amounts of stations had already booked contractors to take apart old analog equipment and flip the switch on the digital stuff, and canceling those kinds of appointments can be costly to say the least. We heard that the big four -- FOX, ABC, CBS and NBC -- would be doing their best to all wait until June 12th in order to reduce confusion, but the FCC has already approved for hundreds of dutiful, prepared stations to follow their original plans and make the switch today.

What it all amounts to is that tons of people are still waiting for DTV vouchers, many of which can now only watch some or none of their local stations over-the-air. On one hand, they should've just applied earlier (right?). On the other, there's the viewpoint stated by the Washington Post: "The idea that the government might deprive people of television reception strikes some as unjust and, in the event of emergencies, possibly dangerous." We won't get all political on you and argue one way or the other, but here's something that's completely bipartisan -- what we currently have on our hands, friends, is a mess.

The original bill that allocated voucher funding passed in 2006, though a $1.5 billion limit was imposed. Clearly, not enough people went for the "I'll just buy a new digital TV!" option. In the most recent, wide-ranging stimulus bill that passed through Congress, another $650 million was set aside for the digital TV transition, and we're left to assume that money will enable the wait list for coupons to dwindle. Of course, actually finding a digital TV converter box should be a real joy, considering that any supply chain manager with half an ounce of sense slowed production to a crawl right around December or January. Now, we're told that some are scrambling to get these product channels rolling again, but don't be shocked if you have to look around a bit to locate a box -- particularly one that's magically close to $40.

So, where do you go from here? If you were one of those responsible, caring, diligent individuals who applied for your coupon prior to the eleventh hour, you're good to go. Regardless of what your local stations do (or don't do, as the case may be), you're all set so long as your box is plugged in. If not, we'd get on the waiting list as soon as possible, or, just pony up the $40 you would've gotten from the government and buy the box outright. Or, you could just forget about all this mayhem and buy a new digital (ATSC tuning) HDTV while recycling your old set. Here's something you can't control: whether or not your local station(s) goes digital today, or waits until June 12th. It's tough, we know, but that's the harsh reality of things.

Oh, and if you were wondering "what could've been" while wading through all this -- just imagine. Every station in America could have switched to digital today, and surely, a few of 'em would've had an inordinate amount of complaints from those that weren't prepared. But still, everything would have been uniform, and the late-bloomers in attendance would simply have themselves to blame for not getting prepared early enough -- or, they could angle their stress at Uncle Sam, who obviously didn't provide enough cash to handle coupon requests the first go 'round. Our guess is that they would choose the later.

As we look forward with puzzled looks on our faces, here on a day of would-have-been history, let's just hope that the suits in Washington learn from this fiasco. Actually, scratch that -- let's just hope the June 12th date doesn't get bumped to sometime in October. Yeah, that's totally more realistic.

[Image courtesy of BreakItDownBlog and KWWL]

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